Just Can't Get Enough

More Summer Reading

Six years after the flushed praise fiction lovers heaped on the gritty Bastard Out of Carolina, Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison (E.P. Dutton, $24.95 hard) is another exploration into the depths of white trash tragedy. But while close parallels to Allison's own tragic past lent Bastard its undeniable authenticity, Cavedweller's foray into the wide fictional wilderness has Allison lost among the finer points of her craft.

In an alternately engaging and heavy-handed tale of redemption, Cavedweller sets aging rock diva Delia Byrd on a frenzied journey to reconcile herself with the children and hometown she abandoned in her youth. The unforgiving Georgia landscape to which Delia returns is a match for the flat reception she meets from a town less impressed with her celebrity than disgusted by her past. Yet nowhere does the crisp imagery which lifted Bastard out of its scrabble-dirt circumstance sweep refreshingly through Cavedweller, blowing the dust and humidity from the stale corners of Allison's contrivance. Like the reckless teenage daughters Delia finds herself raising after a drunken decade of fame, Cavedweller's plot runs ahead of itself without the character strength to clear the hurdles Allison sets up. Though entertaining, the book fumbles through a plot-heavy middle, piling on new characters and twists of fate without exploring or resolving an already impressive tower of story lines.

Though she never manages to spin out the sort of breathtaking prose of which she is capable, Allison does save her teetering story from toppling over. As Delia's girls grow up, so matures the story into a battle between individual aspiration and family destiny. When Allison finally reveals the Byrd women's unifying ability to persevere through disasters of their own making, it is just in time to save the characters and readers from a shared frustration with the seemingly hopeless tangle of story. -Kayte VanScoy

Peter Fonda despises authority. This much we already know, not only because of Easy Rider, but from nearly everything that's ever been made public about this famous Hollywood son. In his entertaining memoir Don't Tell Dad (Hyperion, $25.95 hard), we find out why.

While most celebrity autobiographies are toothless, this one is a flawed exception. Working without a ghostwriter (which, owing to his abuse of slang words, can be distracting), Fonda is always candid, always defiant. It's no shock that the author's legendary father and famous sister are featured prominently. Henry Fonda is remembered alternately as a neglectful and a loving father, while Jane Fonda is propped up most often as the big-sisterly ideal. Fonda also writes lovingly about his relationship with daughter Bridget Fonda.

He isn't an effective chronicler when he's busy bitching about the lean years (roughly, all of Fonda's druggy Seventies and into the Eighties) when he clashed frequently with drug enforcement, the IRS, Dennis Hopper, etc. But like the man who wrote it, Don't Tell Dad is worth its weaknesses.

Although his socialite mother commits suicide when he is only 10 (by slitting her throat!), young Peter is told she died of a heart attack. Not until 12 years later does he learn the truth, and it's a key moment in an unfolding pattern of Peter's personal distrust of his parents, teachers, and eventually co-stars, feds, businesspeople, and border guards. Then there's that really dreadful Fonda parenting. Obsessed that his "little fullback" is too skinny, Henry allows 7-year-old Peter to drink beer. (Svelte Henry Fonda, surprised that his son would be thin?) In a related and even more wrongheaded move, Peter's mother decides to have him examined for a tapeworm. This leads to his suffering from anal abuse nightmares for literally the next 40 years.

Henry is described as an absentee dad, forever busy shooting a film or fighting the war or hanging with buddies John Wayne and James Stewart. But seemingly, whenever young Peter is afraid, Henry materializes, registering macho disapproval. The apparent lone bright spot in Peter's upbringing is his first stepmother Susan Blanchard, whom he nicknames "Mom2."

His reconciliation with his father demonstrates that the son has come to terms not only with the epic Henry Fonda, but with his own history. This softening into maturity, combined with his recent reclamation from the remainder bin of acting (thanks to his acclaimed Ulee's Gold performance) suggests that perhaps Peter Fonda's biggest triumphs lie ahead. -Stuart Wade

Like the great mythic journeys of literature, Sara Wheeler's book of her travels to Antarctica, Terra Incognita (Random House, $25 hard), chronicles the spiritual trip to one's own soul as much as the physical journey to a stated destination. But rest assured, the Brit, who spent seven months in Antarctica in 1995, has written a volume far from some new-agey pseudo-journey à la The Celestine Prophesy. For starters, Wheeler actually experienced what she relates. And for another, the self-revealing aspects of her expedition are related in a delicious, singularly British style of reserve, and, well, style.

A travel writer, Wheeler became intrigued with the bottom of the world during a previous journey to Tierra del Fuego. She eventually found the funding through a patron in her home country and left for the trek of her life. Her destinations on the continent include the (relatively) major bases of McMurdo and Rothera as well as camps at the South Pole and various other remote locations. The book intersperses Wheeler's account with those of other great Polar explorers including Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleon, Roald Amundsen, and others. The specifics of these accounts vary, but they all reach their metaphysical Antarctic. (Or as Thomas Pynchon states, "You wait. Everyone has an Antarctic.") As all physical references are removed by the unceasing glare of the Polar sun, the primitive living environments, and the profound solitude, each individual existing at the bottom of the world encounters the essence of their being at its most naked. And yet, Wheeler's recollections are just as hilarious as enlightening. Her description of a seal barking up the butt of an unsuspecting "beaker" (Wheeler's term for a scientist) heeding the call of nature keeps the book strictly in the world of the everyday. Wheeler's primary landscape is that of the soul, however. More than once, I was reminded of the documentary For All Mankind, which chronicled the Apollo moon flights. The men who shared that singular experience never saw the Earth or themselves in the same way. Polar explorers past and present have a similar connection. And through such literate luminaries as Sara Wheeler, us weak-willed, candy-pants dreamers can get a glimpse of the divine revelations while we bask in our creature comforts. And should we ever succumb to complaints about the savage heat of an Austin summer, this is a sure antidote.
- Barbara Chisholm

I'm not the target audience for Gary Cartwright's new book, HeartWiseGuy: How to Live the Good Life After a Heart Attack (St. Martin's Press, $22.95 hard). As a result, it's particularly refreshing to run across new terms like myocardial infarctions, the Ornish approach, and Body Mass Index, but eventually even the newness of new words wears off. Thankfully for the uninitiated, Cartwright handles all those medical and fitness terms in a broadly discursive and almost painstakingly clear fashion.

HeartWiseGuy is bad on the outside and good on the inside. Since photographs of Cartwright are all over the front and back of the book, let me clarify what I mean by "bad on the outside": I mean the title, which doesn't nearly do justice to expressing everything that is in this book, like Cartwright's coverage of his wild life in Austin from the late Sixties to the Eighties and his love affair with his wife Phyllis. In fact, the first third of the book isn't at all about how to live well after a heart attack; it's about how Cartwright got to the point that he "hit the wall" in 1988 and required emergency bypass surgery. It's about things like Mad Dog, Inc., a "shadowy organization" that writer Bud Shrake and Cartwright formed "for no particular purpose except that the Vietnam War was going on and it seemed like a good idea." From the perspective of Mad Dog, which eventually included the likes of Ann Richards and Willie Nelson, "reality covered more than a single dimension." Dennis Hopper, Dan Jenkins, and Abe Rosenthal all make appearances in this part of the book; the anecdote about Rosenthal is representative: "After the Richardses [David and Ann] moved to Austin in the early Seventies, their hilltop home in Westlake became a sort of Mad Dog sanctuary and the scene of some of our city's most memorable parties. Ann launched one priceless gathering in honor of New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal. Shrake met the esteemed editor at the door, dressed as a giant Tampax. Rosenthal, I assure you, has not forgotten that evening."

Judging from HeartWiseGuy, when an investigative reporter turns the pen on himself, unmitigated candor is the result. Writing about the long recovery process, Cartwright confesses that he "got patience and humility the way some get religion, on the road to Damascus, as it were." We come to know quite a bit about the specifics of Cartwright's body and his relationship with his wife. This personal insight softens the harsh fact that no cure-all is hinted at. According to Cartwright, "The entire experience of open-heart surgery changes your life.... Face it, you are beginning the last chapter of your life." But there is plenty of humor and hope to aid and abet the cogently presented, detailed information. -Claiborne Smith

Van Gogh may well be the artist of the decade - not that he saw a minute of it. Infamously, the artist, who suffered from epilepsy and manic depression as well as immoderate absinthe drinking, shot himself with a revolver at the age of 37. And yes, there was that episode with the ear, but Cynthia Saltzman doesn't cover that in The Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece: Modernism, Money, Politics, Collectors, Dealers, Taste, Greed, and Loss (Viking, $25.95 hard). Rather, her lucid chronicle of Van Gogh's unprecedented evolution over a century from struggling artist to unqualified genius focuses on one particularly poignant painting, The Portrait of Dr. Gachet, eventually sold in 1990 for a record $89.5 million.

The subject of this portrait is, ironically, Van Gogh's doctor, and by all accounts he was a mediocre one at best. Regardless, they formed a kinship, and it was in this melancholy doctor's face that Van Gogh felt he captured "the heartbroken expression of our time." Saltzman traces this one piece from Paris to pre-World War I Germany, where despite a flourishing intellectual community, the Third Reich would soon deem the work "degenerate." By this time, Dr. Gachet's somber face reflected, in the words of one editorial, "an unspoken understanding between humanists, who were now isolated, alienated, and endangered in the Nazi nation."

The portrait escaped to New York, where Gachet's face began to show the collective angst in the new era of the Cold War. In 1990, Dr. Gachet became a powerful symbol of the transfer of wealth to Asia, as Japanese art dealer Hideto Kobayashi bought the relatively unknown portrait for an unprecedented $82.5 million. Dr. Gachet's protean nature elucidates what "universal" really means; in rendering the "heartbreaking portrait of our time," Van Gogh captured the heartbreaking expression of all times. Although Saltzman's commentary dries up between the restoration of the painting to New York and its obvious climax at Christie's, and the book has no fitting resolution, Saltzman provides an even-handed layman's account of a complicated historical evolution, an evolution Van Gogh himself might have balked at.

As the artist once wrote to his mother: "And those high prices one hears about, paid for works of painters who are dead and who were never paid so much while they were alive, it is a kind of tulip trade, under which the living painters suffer rather than gain any benefit." And in this way, the portrait may really reflect the melancholy of our times. -Sarah Hepola

One can hardly call Ted Mooney prolific, but once every 10 years or so he manages to sneak out a novel that manages to leave its readers breathless. Singing Into the Piano (Knopf, $25 hard) is his third, and while it may not be the place to start discovering this magnificent talent, it's as good as the other two, Easy Travel to Other Planets and Traffic and Laughter. The reason is that this time, Mooney doesn't call on his trademarked hallucinatory edge, which has been both upfront (Easy Travel's tale of a woman drawn into a sexual relationship with a dolphin) and so subtle that it creeps up on you (Traffic And Laughter's dawning realization that yes, this is the post-war era but, with India and Pakistan testing atomic weapons, not the one we've been living in). He's writing "straighter," but nonetheless doing it with magnificent élan.

In this case, we follow two couples whose lives accidentally intersect in Manhattan one night. Santiago Diaz, a former soccer star, is campaigning for president of Mexico, and Edith and Andrew, who have recently become lovers, attend the speech out of boredom or curiosity. Actually, Edith has come with her husband, James, an old college friend of Andrew's, but has abandoned him for Andrew's first-row seat, and in the novel's first paragraphs, Santiago is about to deliver his speech when his eye is caught by them - because Edith is giving Andrew a hand-job under the table. This causes him to toss aside his pre-planned speech and wing it, quite eloquently, and afterwards, when the audience goes to another part of the hotel for a reception, his security people find Edith's overstuffed purse and, thinking it's a bomb, throw it outside in the trash. Santiago asks that it be brought to him, and he goes about finding her.

Diaz is opposing Mexico's longstanding ruling party, and thus is never really safe, although everyone concerned behaves as if it's democracy as usual. His real mission in New York is winning American hearts and minds to his cause, and for this, he needs his elegant wife, Mercedes - the two are sort of a Mexican Bill and Hil - who also finds Edith and Andrew (and Andrew's 3-and-a-half-year-old son Kevin from his previous marriage) irresistible. As their friendship develops, shadows creep in. Andrew's job is as a probate lawyer, and his current case is fighting a contested will that leaves a considerable fortune to a young primatologist who is trying to create a reserve in the Brazilian rainforest for some endangered monkeys. It quickly becomes evident that James, who runs an art gallery, is mixed up with some shady business laundering money from Brazil through Mexico, through Marisa, a Brazilian photographer who is his lover, and whose big project is to take a picture of Andrew, Edith, Santiago, and Mercedes on the border, a project nobody is particularly enthusiastic about. And, early on, Santiago's campaign manager steals all his computer files (and his computer guy) and declare his candidacy for president.

But although the plot is richly detailed, it's almost secondary here. What's more important is the thickening texture of the relationships between the characters as they develop through a series of interactions and the slow revelation of each one's idiosyncracies as they plunge into a trip to Mexico that will bring the plot to a masterful conclusion. In the end, though, not much is resolved. A character-driven novel with some spectacular characters, Singing Into the Piano is a book that draws you in. You're fascinated, as everyone concerned is pushed to the limits and, tested, comes out the other end a different person.

I'd recommend finding Mooney's two other books first (search for Easy Travel in the science-fiction section: As with the other two, the title doesn't seem to have much to do with the story), but keep this one in mind. Mooney's not a blockbuster, and this is his most subtle work to date. It will charm and seduce you, and probably horrify you more than once. Its characters will live with you long after you close the book and make you hope that Mooney doesn't take so long until the next one. -Ed Ward

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