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Elizabeth McCracken

The Giant's House

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The Dial Press

           "[HE WAS] ONLY a boy whose body was a miracle to others. You could believe in God, looking at James." Peggy Cort, the narrator of Elizabeth McCracken's debut novel, The Giant's House, would like to believe in God. Or something better. She's too smart for the '50s, too misanthropic for marriage, with an unknown history she deems "beside the point." Peggy is starving for something big, but doesn't realize it until he walks in the door. In her way, she's like countless nuns: intelligent women who harbored passions too huge for the conventions of their day--a consuming love of learning, solitude, God, or other women. Historically, such women had few options: Some went into the convent, some went mad, some became saints. Peggy became a librarian in a small Cape Cod town.

           On the surface, it's not so compelling a path. But McCracken--herself a former librarian--makes it seem the most intriguing profession in the world: "Nowadays, trendy librarians, wanting to be important, say, Knowledge is power. I know better. Knowledge is love.... A patron arrives, says, Tell me something. You reach across the desk and pull him toward you, bear hug him a second and then take him into your lap, stroke his forehead, whisper facts in his ear. The climate in Chad is tropical in the south, desert in the north. Source: 1991 CIA World Factbook. Do you love me?... Synecdote is a literary device meaning the part for the whole, as in the crowned heads of Europe. I love you." Love is being useful. It's the most selfish of all unselfish acts.

           Enter a 6-foot 11-year-old looking for something to read. Peggy falls in love at first sight with James the Giant, but the reasons for her passion remain the novel's central mystery. Peggy herself doesn't offer many clues--for someone whose job it is to convey information, she's one stingy narrator. (If it's true that first novels are overwritten, McCracken must have at least four other manuscripts in her desk drawer.) Peggy's in love with her own voice, but mostly with controlling what it reveals. When she describes her early, unfulfilled desire for closeness with James--"Lacking things was what I did. I might as well lack something interesting"--she could be describing McCracken's writing method. She has too little self-regard to bother describing herself physically, and the reader ends up feeling held at arm's length, even vaguely resented. Still, there's a fire somewhere under all that starch, and the smoke keeps one digging.

           So what about the boy? He peaks at 8-foot-7; he likes doing magic tricks, and he doesn't have many clothes--they're too expensive. His balance is poor. He has his own cottage (thanks to Peggy) in his family's backyard, with giant-sized furniture, where he lives, reads, paints, listens to records with his friends. He is besieged by tourists, but forces them to answer his questions. He is going to die young--giants, like dwarves, do that. And Peggy attends to him every day. Clearly, her obsession is partly an attempt to control him, but considering everything she gives, maybe that's not such a bad thing. We trust her judgment. This is real love.

           And these are real people: James is no mere symbolic device. His body is described in concrete detail: his tortured feet, his "beautiful, useful" hands, his oversized eyeglasses, even his urine. But why does Peggy love him so wildly--and not just spiritually? At some point, this ardor outgrows the question, settling into permanent mystery. Like James's giantism, there's no cure; it refuses to stop, growing out of all reasonable bounds. It's something so deep we could tap it over and over and never reach the center. And that's something to be grateful for. (Kate Sullivan)

Ben Neihart

Hey, Joe

Simon & Schuster

           PROBABLY THE LAST New Yorker story that truly wowed me was Ben Neihart's "Hey, Joe." The title character is a gentle, pot-smoking teen from an upper-middle class suburb of New Orleans--not an evil lout, not a tortured loser, not a chump. He is charmingly awkward and almost unbelievably sophisticated (he knows both Dutch painting and Digable Planets), and his favorite weekend activity is to go into the Quarter to check shit out and meet up with people. He loves hanging out with women but he's pretty much decided on guys in the romance department. And his bald honestly makes him immediately endearing: "I've got a lot to learn, dude, and I admit it," he tells his first love, the proverbial boy next door, "but I'm not the only one."

           "Hey, Joe" the story eventually grew into Hey, Joe the novel, which seems the key to the book's promise and its problems. While remarkable for a debut, the story contained in these barely 200 pages (with large type) feels both slight and rushed. Everything takes place on a Friday night in late summer when Joe, abandoned by his best friend Wyatt, hops a bus to the city, lookin' for love. This same night, a verdict will finally be reached in a scandalous trial involving boys at an orphanage who were allegedly molested by Rae Schipke, the director of a huge foundation that supported the orphanage.

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