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Love On The Half-Shell 

Louisiana is setting for Faulkneresque tale

Joseph Campbell once stated that the only way you could truly describe a human being was by describing his imperfections; and in this, his first novel, John Biguenet does just that. In the tradition of Greek tragedy, Biguenet explores the story of human suffering, striving, living, and youth coming to knowledge of itself -- through the engrossing tale of a deadly rivalry between two families, the Petijeans and the Bruneaus.In 1957, in the Plaquemines Parish of Louisiana, Horse Bruneau, 52, has spent his life coveting both the Petijeans' century-old oyster beds and the Petijean matriarch, Mathilde, and with the Petijeans backed into a corner, he sees an opportunity to take something else he wants: Mathilde's daughter. But 18-year-old Therese Petijean renounces her family's plan to offer her in marriage to the family's chief rival (who holds the papers on both the family's house and boat) and devises a plan to prevent the marriage.

The story proceeds along several lines. The most important is the evolving relationship between Therese and Rusty, the youngest Bruneau, which comes full circle by novel's end. The second is the unfolding of the mother-daughter relationship between Mathilde and Therese, and Mathilde's deep secrets. Finally, there are the Bruneau boys, and the sea of vast difference between Rusty and his older, bullying, brothers.

Adultery and greed are the deadly instruments that set into motion each family's descent into evil and destruction. For much of the novel, we see both the Petijeans and the Bruneaus stumbling, catching their breath, having rare moments of insight, and then stumbling again. In the middle of them all, we see Rusty, the youngest Bruneau, observing and analyzing stone and water, water and sky, viewing them as if they were two hands praying, and understanding that everything that happens in the world goes on between those two hands.

By the end of the novel, what we want, quite badly, is for someone to stop and really see Rusty. He represents, in a way, the anxieties of all these characters -- trying busily to control things, coming up against the fixed, lonely borders of the self. Rusty can watch the bay go pink and purple and he understands this kinship between the seen and unseen. He knows that "inside a stone, water thickens into an oyster, and then pulses within its shell like the gray heart of a stone," and without speaking it, he understands that every living thing must die and that the world is both muted and bright at the same time. For Rusty, growing up on his father's boat, the Squall, "every living thing in the water that fell onto the deck of a boat cried out for its mother, the sea," and he soon learned "how to let things die without flinching." He, like the small community where he lives, understands that there must always be a balance; for these two families, that means a death for death.

Skillfully combining simultaneous plots that offer contrasting views on love and friendship, loss, and salvation, the novel opens with a brutal murder that sets into motion a tragic sequence of events that echo of Shakespearian tragedy. Biguenet creates something which, in less skillful hands, could have become a single-minded morality tale; instead, he weaves a swirling parable examining an unpredictable tale of murder and revenge in which two women and the men who desire them play out a drama that touches on tyranny and rebellion, and the struggle of male and female.

Biguenet's novel offers an insightful assessment of the motives behind human actions and interactions. Through uncommon situations and unexpected transformations, Biguenet explores with startling honesty the virtues and flaws that reveal themselves when we encounter extraordinary situations. His prose percolates with a sense of delight at the act of invention, and he seems to be having such a good time creating the novel's fantastic storyline, characters stand up off the page and language expertly teases moods and moments into existence so that, as a reader, you can't help turning the page.

Notable Paperbacks Heart & Soul: A Celebration of Black Music Style In America 1930-1975 by Bob Merlis & Davin Seay. We missed this one when it was published late last year, but we can't recommend it enough for anyone interested in the huge contributions made by black musicians to American culture. Terrific graphics -- including a ton of color photos, posters, publicity shots and album covers -- add flash to a solid text that tells the exciting story of the flowering of black American music and the stylish artists who helped loosen America's cultural belt.Amsterdam by Ian McEwen. The success of McEwen's current novel, Atonement, has led to the re-marketing of some of this stellar British author's previous work, including the Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam. McEwen's writing is witty and accomplished while telling the story of two old friends whose bad moral choices unleash national, and personal, firestorms. The worlds of the arts, journalism and politics all take a hilarious beating in this light-in-tone, yet substantive story.Boy Still Missing by John Searles. A bit cheesy, but more camembert than sliced singles; Searles has such a way with plot twists and charaterizations, this story of a 16-year-old boy from a blue-collar family growing up in the early 70s proved irresistible. Family secrets, deadly abortions, media frenzies, and twisted lives are entertwined in one of last year's best literary guilty pleasures.The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. Journalist and gardener Pollan's surprise best-seller looks at the interrelationship between humans and four of their favorite plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. His vision of how people and plants constantly engage in reciprocal interaction is a delightful eye-opener as he shows how the four plants have used human desires to thrive.The Road To Perdition by Max Allan Collins. The acclaimed graphic novel (i.e., comics-format), now the basis for a new Tom Hanks film, is a very dark but very gripping story set in the 1930s. A loyal mob hitman's wife and son are murdered in a double-cross and he spends the rest of the book exacting ruthless revenge. Themes of heroism, tragedy, blood, faith and redemption give the story a powerful subtext. Gritty, cinematic artwork by Richard Rayner throughout drives the story at times to a fever pitch.

-- John Grooms, Dana Renaldi

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