The Death of Vishnu
Virtually all of this enchanting novel takes place in or around a Bombay apartment house where Vishnu, the tenants' drunken factotum, lies in his appointed sleeping place on a stair landing either dying or perhaps already dead. The two Hindu families on the first floor, the Asranis and the Pathaks, squabble over who will pay for the ambulance to cart poor, unsightly Vishnu away.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Jalals on the second floor are in turmoil because husband Ahmed, after years of proclaiming himself a religious freethinker, has been behaving like a mystic, leading his wife Arifa to worry that he is the victim of an evil eye. And unknown to all the adults in the building is the Asrani daughter Kavita's movie-besotted plan to elope with the Jalals' son Salim.
Its clever structure allows The Death of Vishnu (Norton; 295 pages; $24.95) to display a manageable cross-section of contemporary urban Indian life, including class and religious frictions. But Manil Suri, who grew up in Bombay and now teaches mathematics at the University of Maryland, has more to offer here than gentle social comedy. During the course of the novel, Vishnu's soul disentangles itself from his earthly remains and begins ascending the apartment house stairs. As this spirit looks back on the life just ending, on the mother who named him after a Hindu god, on the prostitute whom he truly loved, Suri's novel achieves an eerie and memorable transcendence. --By Paul Gray
VISIONS OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
Swimming Toward The Ocean
A child who reimagines the lives of her parents clearly is also bound to paint her own self-portrait using the reflections in their eyes. And so it happens for Devorah Arnow as she memorializes her mother Chenia, a Russian Jewish emigre who settled in Brooklyn in the middle of the 20th century, raised a family, grew old, but never really got off the boat from Europe. Chenia, as Devorah reconstructs her in Carole Glickfeld's Swimming Toward the Ocean (Knopf; 388 pages; $24), lingers on a sort of moral gangplank with a view of the dazzling rides at Coney Island but with fear in her heart for the great American whirl. It's Chenia's husband who's having the good time, romping with his mistress and trying to sue himself into a fortune with harebrained legal actions. Devorah remembers it all from a remove, after having grown up to suffer insults as her mother did and make some of her mother's mistakes. It's a small story the novel tells--but with sweetness and wisdom and affection--of how each generation sets sail anew for its own America, because landing and arriving aren't quite the same. --By Walter Kirn
TALES OF THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN WEST
David Anthony Durham draws an impressive moral fable from the history and legends of the American West. Gabriel, 15, has been taken by his mother, a former slave, to Kansas, where his new stepfather is establishing a homestead. The boy is appalled by the chores he sees stretching endlessly ahead of him and eventually manages to run off with a pair of Texas horse dealers who promise to train him in the glamorous cowboy profession. What Gabriel learns quickly enough is that his new mentors are psychopaths embarked on a trail of revenge, rape and murder across the Southwest. When he escapes from their rampage, Gabriel must find his way not only back to Kansas but to a reckoning with his conscience. Gabriel's Story (Doubleday; 294 pages; $23.95) sometimes seems a little too derivative of William Faulkner as filtered through Cormac McCarthy: "The bull seemed to stand there for no particular purpose that it or the boys could make out, except as a spectacle reminiscent of some pagan culture." Never mind. Durham finds his own voice and rhythm, and the story gallops. --P.G.
COMING OF AGE IN MISSISSIPPI
Rides of the Midway
Noel Weatherspoon's Mississippi adolescence during the late 1970s is a troubled one, even by the standards of most coming-of-age novels. Not only did his father board a ride called the Black Dragon at a state fair and disappear from the lives of his wife and two sons, but while trying to stretch a Little League triple into a home run, Noel collides with the opposing catcher and sends him into an irreversible coma. Figuring he will face a murder rap fairly soon, Noel resolves to enjoy himself while he can.
His hedonistic odyssey in Rides of the Midway (Norton; 316 pages; $25.95) involves eye-popping quantities of liquor and drugs. Those pursuits leave Noel increasingly at odds with the God-fearing Southerners around him, particularly his stepfather, who looks remarkably like Billy Graham. Mississippi-raised author Lee Durkee portrays his hero's feckless dissolution with considerable comic flair and a sharp eye for regional manners, good and bad. There isn't much profundity on display here, but readers will finish the book feeling they've been treated to quite a ride. --P.G.