By Dinah Lenney, Special to the Times
Published: September 1, 2007
There's no doubt that Alan Cheuse likes women. They've written many of the books the longtime NPR literary critic recommended this summer. A prolific author, Cheuse has written from a female point of view in two of his previous novels, "The Grandmothers' Club" and "The Light Possessed." Despite his evident affection for the other sex, his female characters suffer in his new book, "The Fires," which is really two novellas, ostensibly linked as treatments of grief.
In the first, "The Fires," for which the volume is titled, Gina loses her husband Paul to a car accident a continent away. In the second, "The Exorcism," the male narrator is forced to come to terms with the women in his life: his ex-wife Billie, dead of an overdose; his daughter, Ceely, who is in mourning for her mother; and Charmaine, his second wife, who turns out to be willing to see him through a midlife crisis.
None of these women gets a fair shake. Gina is friendless, childless and jobless too, which makes her loss all the more tragic. And it turns out that poor, neglected Ceely has a stepmother who is one of those "talented" (self-indulgent) types who keeps changing vocations and announcing that she hasn't "found" herself.
Besides dealing with women in jeopardy, what links the tales? Fire. College-aged Ceely torches a piano on campus in a desperate bid for her father's attention, and Gina carries the torch -- the instrument of her husband's desired cremation -- in a ceremony in far-off Russia. Spirituality, too, is a shared theme. Paul's last rites are orchestrated by a Hindu priest, and Ceely's father, immersed in the Bhagavad Gita on tape, directs his narrative to a New Age therapist called Erna in a comedic variation on 12-step programs, in which he will forgive everyone he ever knew.
I won't quibble with the first moments of "The Fires," although they gave me pause. How hard can it be to urinate in a cup, I wondered. (Maybe Cheuse really does know somebody who failed to get it right three times in a row.) He opens with Gina, his menopausal protagonist, who is foiled on her third try at the cup by the kind of phone call we all fear -- word that someone we love is dead. And now there's a floor to mop. Life would be funny if it weren't, that's the point; and if this first novella never gets funny again, the second one strains for laughs all the way.
But back to "The Fires": It's the prose at the opening -- not the events themselves -- that gave me a start. Gina, mid-stream, "tangy liquid gushing out of her," rushes to answer the phone, "spraying her underwear, her skirt, the bathroom mat, the tile floor." But that's not how it's done: Women don't gush or spray under the circumstances, and why oh why is her urine "tangy"? Kudos to Cheuse for attempting to address middle-aged sexuality from a woman's point of view, but Gina is no more credible when aroused: the "heat running in slender threads up toward her buttocks." The woman reader is inclined to stop reading and scratch her head.
Bold as Cheuse is with voice -- and the book does have writerly range and empathy -- he is most believable here when he writes from a male point of view. He's good with dream states, too, waking and sleeping -- that's when his prose is simplest and most pungent: ". . . dog after dog after dog ran between the lanes in my restless thoughts," Ceely's sleepless dad muses in "The Exorcism." And in "The Fires," Cheuse writes of a "spicy adrenaline shooting through" Paul's limbs the first time he nearly swerves off the road.
What's most compelling about both stories -- more so than any Eastern-influenced meditation on the nature of life after death -- is the examination of romantic love in middle age. Gina and Paul, confounded by her menopause, have just begun to sort things out before his fatal crash. And when Ceely moves in with her dad, he and Charmaine must reassess their marriage to move on themselves. Cheuse is willing to portray his characters as less than sympathetic and -- to his credit -- seems more inclined to embrace the mysteries of relationships than to try to explain them.
Even so, it appears he wants to wow us with fireworks -- to put on a show. But for all the exotic references and the pyrotechnics, it's his honest confrontation with love in the long term that provides the real heat at the core of "The Fires."
Dinah Lenney, a Los Angeles-based actress, is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir."