by Molly Jong-Fast
Published by Villard
195 pages, 2000
A Density of Souls
Published by Talk Miramax Books
274 pages, 2000
by Norris Church Mailer
Published by Random House
395 pages, 2000
Reviewed by Sienna Powers
Ask just about any aspiring writer out there: getting a contract to write a book ain't easy. At any given time, there are thousands of talented writers in line ahead of you. I mean, it happens. Obviously, lots of books by new writers get published every year. But it really helps to have as much as possible on your side. For most of us, that means, for starters, lots of clips of your published work. Talent, should go without saying but quite often doesn't. Lots of stamps. Lots of waiting. Lots of fretting and wringing of hands. And, of course, loads of rejections.
For some, however, the route is a little more direct. Being the significant other or the fruit of the loins or womb of a bestselling author is the door opener that few publishing houses can turn down. Or so it would seem, based on recent releases from three major publishers: each by authors who share a last name and strong family connection with writers whose reputations are so huge, bestseller status is assured by the mere hint of a new release and fans are impatient for the next book before the present one is even complete. Truly, there are few writers on the present literary scene who outsell Norman Mailer, Erica Jong and Anne Rice. And what might the next best thing be? How 'bout a book with part of their name on it in the very genre in which they write?
Taking the fast track to hardcover can have its drawbacks. Despite the family connections, all three of these books are -- in their own ways -- really quite good. But who's going to believe it? As a society, we have a reluctance to buy into the merits of anyone who didn't spring from nowhere and do it on their own. And thus it's difficult to take Enrique Iglasias seriously (maybe it's a bad example: did anyone take Julio seriously in the first place?) or Bridget Fonda or Charlie Sheen even though that particular trio are all uniquely talented individuals who -- arguably -- have added greatly to their own fields.
Molly Jong-Fast is the single twin-hitter in this particular group. She is the daughter of two novelists: Erica Jong and Jonathan Fast. In some ways, Normal Girl is no surprise at all: it is precisely the book you'd imagine Erica Jong's daughter would write. Normal Girl takes place in the slipstream of the New York junior jet set. Normal Girl's 19-year-old Miranda Woke is the daughter of a brace of New York City socialites. Miranda doesn't just have it all: she has it all over the top. It's a relentless book. Jong-Fast gives us the view through her protagonist's eyes in MTV-style. It's the rapid-fire view of one not-so-juvinile delinquent's rapid fall and subsequent slow fight back from the almost predictable excess of too much of everything, but mostly drugs.
Normal Girl is a delight. Jong-Fast tells her story with style and a great deal of humor. And be thankful for the humor: some of these scenes would be too grisly to see without it.
No sight of Dad, but I'm hyperaware of Peter Dean standing ten feet in front of me. I watch him scan the room for money or fame and then gradually decide that I'm important enough to speak to, though I have no idea why.
Mama will be proud.
A Density of Souls is the somewhat gothic first effort of Christopher Rice, son of vampire-maven Anne Rice and the poet Stan Rice. And since both of his parents have the same moniker, Rice is the only one of this trio without a double-barreled name. Vampire-fans will be disappointed at the total lack of the creatures in young Rice's novel, but there's little else to complain about.
Set in Rice's hometown of New Orleans, A Density of Souls begins at the edge of high school and concludes on the lip of adulthood. While Density of Souls lacks some of Normal Girl's rough and raw energy, it is, perhaps, unfair to compare them. While Normal Girl is focused on people -- mostly Miranda -- and the places she passes through are given color only to enhance the action; Density of Souls is very place-focused. For example, the book begins:
Beneath a sky thickening with summer thunderheads, they rode their bikes to Lafayette Cemetery, where the dead are buried above ground. The four of them flew down Chestnut Street, their wheels bouncing over flagstones wrenched by gnarled roots of oak trees. They passed high wrought-iron fences beyond which Doric and Ionic columns held up the facades of Greek Revival mansions, their screened porches shrouded in tangles of vines.
Rice spends a lot of time and energy establishing a sense of place. While some of his descriptions are quite riveting, A Density of Soul's pace suffers as a result. It's a worthy first effort, however. With modern-day New Orleans providing the backdrop for a suspenseful story of murder, madness and coming-of-age.
Maturity is not lacking in Norris Church Mailer's first novel, Windchill Summer. Mrs. Norman Mailer for the last 25 years, this author brings us a very different coming-of-age novel. Set in small-town Arkansas in the late 1960s, Church Mailer's voice is sharp, clear and perfectly modulated for the area about which she's chosen to write. In its own way Windchill Summer brings us Southern echoes as strong and clean as those given us by Rebecca Wells in her Ya-Ya sisters series.
He still had the same old truck he had planned on driving off Nehi Mountain -- a '53 Plymouth -- and one of the springs stuck up through the vinyl seat covers and poked me in the back. Besides being uncomfortable, I was scared it would tear my dress, which poofed out and filled up the truck cab. I had to fight the slips, which kept billowing up in my face. It was hard to focus on romance. But Ricky Don was one determined fellow. He finally found what he was looking for, and I felt something hard punching in the general direction of my you-know-what, but it was missing the mark and hitting the bone. I tried to tell him, but the slips muffled my voice. Or maybe he was just concentrating too hard to hear.
Windchill Summer introduces us to Cherry Marshall, 21 as the book opens, an innocent, despite the fact that she's anticipating her last year of college. She's making money by working at the local pickle plant -- something that Church Mailer's description does nothing to glamorize -- and, like everyone, watching the news of Vietnam and moon shots on television.
Church Mailer captures the turbulence and torpor that were small-town U.S.A. of the period with beauty, humor and even some inadvertent poetry. The only thing left to wonder as Windchill Summer concludes is, what took this author so long? And, will there be another? We can hope. | August 2000
Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.