Reports From The Heartland

For three decades, Harold Brodkey was the hesitant Hamlet of American letters, and his unpublished novel, "Party of Animals," a legendary masterpiece. Brodkey's 1958 collection, "First Love and Other Sorrows," and the ruminative stories subsequently appearing in magazines, led critic Harold Bloom to pronounce him "an American Proust," Editor Gordon Lish, whom Brodkey credits with "visionary suggestions" about his work, called Brodkey's ever-accreting, ever-withheld first novel "the one necessary American narrative work of this century. " All this must have been an additional burden on an already anxious writer.

Brodkey sold the novel to Random House in 1964. In 1970, it went to Farrar Straus, which kept announcing its publication as Brodkey kept rewriting it. In 1979, Knopf bought it, and in 1988 published ... "Stories in an Almost Classical Mode," containing what may have been chunks of "Party of Animals"-which went back to Farrar Straus. Now the opus magnum, or at least an 835-page installment of it, has appeared as "The Runaway Soul."

Despite its long history, "The Runaway Soul" turns out to be very much a first novel. Like Brodkey himself, Wiley Silenowicz (he's also in the stories), was adopted at the age of 2 and is now-what else?--a writer. He tells of growing up in 1930s St. Louis with a mother who chatters on in catch phrases, a father who flirts with him sexually and an older sister who may have murdered two baby brothers. The book is naively "experimental": long passages in italics, a dialogue between "Self A" and "Self B," a 100-plus-page petting session. Wiley's speculations on time, truth and God repel comprehension with a sort of stylistic Scotchgard. "Time itself," he writes, "proposes consciousness simply in the nature of its own being--in the way it is no longer itself but is itself still. . . " What is the sound of one head scratching?

If all such passages had been cut, this would be a novel of far less magisterial heft, and we'd have a better idea of how it fits together. We'd like to think Wiley's murky self-absorption is a deliberate effect: ill judged, maybe, since it renders so much of the book barely readable, but judged. It's a plausible result of Wiley's upbringing, and great stretches of the novel show, both in words and deeds, his ambivalence: about women, about men, about the very notion of certainty. But imitative form can excuse only so much uncommunicating prose. "The Runaway Soul" is absolutely the last book you want to say this about, but it could have used a rewrite.

Hug Dancing By Shelby Hearon. 243 pages. Knopf $20.

There's something irresistible about a book that begins, "They lived happily ever after." But if its final sentence is "Once upon a time"--a dangerously coy move-- there had better be something yummy in between. In Shelby Hearon's tangy Texas fairy tale, there is. And because it's a contemporary (and Western) fairy tale, those in the white hats and those in the black frequently swap headgear.

Things are a little wacko in Waco. Cile Tait is leaving her Presbyterian preacher husband, Eben, to marry her old high-school sweetheart, down-home land baron Drew Williams. Eben takes his revenge by announcing the split-up from his pulpit, before Cile can break the news to their two eco-warrior daughters. She imagines he plotted this "to scoop me in my own infidelity. To orchestrate my faithlessness as if it was merely a part of his own composition." If this sounds tough, consider that the self-righteous Eben has been secretly fiddling around with a member of his flock, an inveigling particle physicist.

Hearon has assigned to Eben one of her own favorite themes, free will versus determinism, but she plays it out in all her characters. This could let them off the hook; to Hearon's credit, it doesn't. Some act unforgivably; others forgive. To Cile, the narrator and most complex character, Hearon gives her own gift for language. Cile is word perfect, a woman who knows the real meaning of practically everything, from heathen to flagrant to teen. Language frees and defines her. It also hurts her: as she articulates her independence, Drew draws away, incapable of extricating himself from his own dreadful marriage.

In this twisted, touching, hilarious family drama, appearances are more than deceiving; they're downright wrong. Halfway through, Hearon seems to telegraph the denouement; then, with rosy adroitness, she turns motivations inside out. This is a fairy tale, and so it has an impossibly happy ending. Hearon would not cheat us of that.

WLT: A Radio Romance By Garrison Keillor. 401 pages. Viking. $21.95.

Radio made Garrison Keillor famous, and in his new novel he takes his revenge. Keillor, the world's most ubiquitous self-proclaimed Shy Person, would have been just another obscure double-surnamed writer but for his stint for 13 years as host of public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion." And now, thanks to "WLT: A Radio Romance," we know what he was thinking all those years. He was trying to avoid passing gas in front of an open microphone. And he was itching to get his paw inside the tight, spangled outfit of one of the backup singers in his parade of little-known cowboy bands.

We know this because intestinal gas and fornication are the two chief subjects of discussion at the fictional station WLT, founded in 1926 to promote a Minneapolis sandwich shop (the call letters stand for "with lettuce and tomato"). In its heyday before the war, WLT filled the ether from the Alleghenies to the Rockies with what its founder describes as "the sheer trashiness of radio! ... Announcers laying on the charm to sell you hair tonic." But it was also a magical device, transforming flatulent, crippled old maids into ingenues and whiskey-breathed reprobates into avuncular founts of wisdom. The parade of cynical radio preachers, drunken gospel singers and randy soap-opera sweethearts lasts for a quarter century, until the reader is screaming for television to be invented. It finally is, although not before an actor on "Love's Old Sweet Song" runs off to Chicago with an actress on "Arthur Fox, Detective" and their characters must be killed off in separate accidents within an hour of each other. "A dangerous business, radio," one character observes dryly. No wonder Keillor prefers writing. If you bomb, you're safe at home when it happens.

A Thousand Acres By Jane Smiley. 371 pages. Knopf $23.

Jane Smiley's new novel, her seventh, is a tour de force. Not the least of her achievements is that it's possible to miss what she's pulled off here because the novel is such a pleasure to read on its own terms. A family drama set on an Iowa farm circa 1979, "A Thousand Acres" also retells the story of "King Lear," Shakespeare's tragedy of a king betrayed by two of his daughters and ruined by his own moral blindness. (Smiley drops numerous clues as to her intentions, and there's also a tipoff in the jacket copy). Larry Cook is the Lear figure, the head of an extended family bound to the land for generations. Larry is widely acknowledged to be the best farmer around; he's also a domineering father to whom one doesn't talk back. Two of his daughters are hard-working farm wives; the youngest has left home to become a lawyer. When he abruptly decides to retire and turn over the farm to his daughters, the youngest expresses some doubt about the wisdom of the change and is promptly cut out of the deal. Slowly and then with devastating certainty, the family is ripped apart and severed from the land.

What makes this novel such a triumph is Smiley's brilliant twist on the Lear story: she tells it not from Larry's point of view but from his eldest daughter's. Ginny has been content on the farm, but as the family's situation changes she gains a different and horrifying perspective on her father and her remembered childhood. Here as in "Lear," the plot turns on a raging storm; here as in "Lear," the storms raging within are the most brutal. In the end Smiley does what Shakespeare himself never did: she creates a female heroine who grows through her own anguish until she towers over the hero and conquers him.

Almanac of the Dead By Leslie Marmon Silko. 763 pages. Simon & Schuster. $25.

At the end of this mesmerizing, aggravating, beguiling, infuriating and very, very long novel, two things are clear: Leslie Marmon Silko is mighty talented and mighty angry. There are long stretches in this story as vivid as any in contemporary fiction. There is also enough sleaze and cheapness to support a dozen movies of the week. And enough wild-eyed tract writing to make this book the literary equivalent of talk radio.

The cast list is pure miniseries: A coke addict searching for her kidnapped infant, a psychic who can locate people only once they're dead, militant Native Americans, drug smugglers, gunrunners, a paramilitary army of the homeless, an odd-sock assortment of mystics, eco-guerrillas and a Mafia boss who does business only on the golf course. Tucson is the viscid sump toward which all these rough beasts slink, and apocalypse-specifically the end of the white man's reign in the Americas and the triumphant reclamation by Native Americans of their lands-is the crossbred offspring of all of their mongrelizing enterprises.

Silko isn't keen on fairness. In her cosmology there are good people and there are white people, "the vampires and werewolves of greed." "Almanac" is her version of payback. But if the evil spirits she conjures look too cartoonish--and even a mite banal after several hundred pages-they aren't easily dismissed. Silko the novelist has seen to that. This vivid, preposterous, splinter-under-the-fingernails book is guaranteed to make you mad and just as sure to make you squirm. The final irony is that only in the America that earns so much of Silko's wrath could such a flamboyant and eccentric piece of fiction come forth.