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Sunday, March 30, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Debut fiction: Expert topographers of people and their home turf

Seattle Times book critic

We're not even halfway through the year and already 2003 is proving memorable for its debut fiction. Among the highlights already reviewed in The Seattle Times: Dao Strom's "Grass Roof, Tin Roof" and ZZ Packer's "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere."

Here are three other notable recent debuts — each different in character but all with a strong sense of place and obvious love of language in common.

"The Hills at Home" by Nancy Clark (Pantheon, $25). Set in "an old Yankee town" being swallowed by Boston suburban sprawl, Nancy Clark's first novel portrays an accidental yearlong family reunion that reads like a jumbo-sized Shakespearean comedy. The book is leisurely in its pace and lavish in its detail, with a humor that ranges from arch to zany.

Aunt Lily, independent-minded spinster and unofficial head of the Hill clan, frankly isn't pleased when, in summer 1989, the ramshackle, 200-year-old house where she lives in contented solitude starts filling with relatives in various states of limbo.

Her brother Harvey, a widower for the third time, has come to take his bearings — and maybe scout the local widows for wife No. 4. Niece Ginger, with her daughter Betsy in tow, has ditched her husband in Kansas without much thought as to what she'll do next. Nephew Alden, after losing his job on Wall Street, turns up with his family of six and a vague plan to start his own business ("Painless tree extraction and prompt, expert timber removal by an M.B.A."). Grand-nephew Arthur, a girlfriend in his wake, is determined to jump-start his standup-comedy career in this New England backwater.

The final straw: post-grad student Andy Happening, nephew of a family friend, has chosen the Hills as the subject of his thesis and designated himself their resident sociologist. "It is very seldom that anyone has ventured from the Grove of Academe into the surrounding suburbs," he explains. "This could well prove to be as important as Margaret Mead's field work in Samoa." What it proves to be is pretty hilarious as Clark reveals herself as a far more meticulous social observer than Andy. Not only that, she manages to throw in a spy-story subplot while she's at it.

Clark's minutiae on Hill rituals and household accouterments can be overwhelming at times, slowing the book's pace too much. But her descriptions are both witty (an Amtrak "pillow-ette" is "tough as a Chiclet") and exact (Lily has "osseous old saint's relic fingers"). The impossible Ginger, the bumbling Andy and the bratty kids of Alden make great figures of fun. Alden's wife, Becky, Ginger's daughter Betsy and Lily herself are, each in her turn, poignant heartbreakers — as well as the reader's most reliable beacons of sense in the crazy family flux.

Clark has a whole Hill trilogy in mind. Here's looking forward to Volume 2.

"Brownsville" by Oscar Casares (Back Bay, $13.95). Oscar Casares' debut collection of stories, set entirely in the Texas border city on the Rio Grande, is as pleasurably spare in its detail as "The Hills at Home" is richly overstuffed. Although the stories aren't linked by shared characters, they all so vividly evoke Casares' hometown that they seem to suggest a single narrative, similar in vein to James Joyce's "Dubliners." Read "Brownsville" — and you've been to Brownsville.

Husbands and fathers on a short fuse dominate the book. But Casares' women make a big impression as well. So does the amiably idle, beer-guzzling, 31-year-old, live-at-home son in the story "Chango," who, for reasons gradually disclosed, grows inordinately fond of a severed monkey's head that turns up in his yard ("Except for it not having a body, the monkey was in perfect condition").

"Chango" is the book's most striking entry. But it has good company in "Mrs. Perez," about a bowling-champion widow who isn't going to stand for a teenager stealing her prize ball, and "Mr. Z," in which an 11-year-old, working at a fireworks stand, doesn't know how to handle it when his boss starts bad-mouthing his father.

In all nine stories, Casares has a knack for noting how small annoyances — a barking dog, an unreturned borrowed hammer — can tap straight into volatile frustrations and injuries to pride. He also has a lively eye for human comedy, as a beautiful wife finesses her way around

a controlling husband or a so-called "sports promoter" turns out, in fact, to be a scalper.

There are some sad moments here: a gentle 73-year-old gardener still missing his infant daughter decades after her death; a young father at a loss as to how to relate to his 6-year-old bookworm son. There's a keen sense, too, of what makes the city tick. "As long as there's a bridge to Mexico," says one character, "I have a job." Due note is also made of the effect the town's hurricane-prone lowland confines can have on its citizens: "He wished Brownsville wasn't so damn flat because he wanted to drive off a cliff."

Casares uses a fair amount of Spanish but takes care to make most of it intelligible in context. Still, some readers may want to keep a Spanish-English dictionary handy to enjoy every last turn of phrase in this loving, rueful book.

"Jubilee King" by Jesse Shepard (Bloomsbury, $23.95). From the Gulf Coast to the West Coast: In his debut story collection, set mostly in Northern California, Jesse Shepard proves tough, canny, wildly inventive. His characters include drifters, ranch hands and women with unusual agendas. The book's 12 stories range from six to 24 pages. For Shepard, longer tends to be better.

Standouts include "First Day She'd Never See," in which the narrator sidewindingly reveals his reasons for selling the car he's living in; "We'll Talk Later," in which a California couple in a shaky condition makes a comically difficult attempt to start over in rural Virginia; and "Blinkers," about a 46-year-old bride-to-be who insists that she wants her wedding procession to be entirely on horseback.

The title story takes an eerie look at an aging horse breeder, dispossessed of his ranch, who wants, literally, to dig up the past. "Wax," which seems at first a tale of crass seduction, turns out to be something far stranger, with a twist worthy of Roald Dahl.

There's a van Gogh vigor to Shepard's writing, whether he's noting the tattered weather that blows in off the Pacific or describing "valley oaks twisting in the morning grayness, frozen in their march across the leaning yellow pastures." Occasionally he tries too hard ("a day that took its coat off and spread out nude to rain on the world"), but usually when he tries for an unusual figure of speech, he pulls it off.

And he can write about horses like nobody's business. In "Blinkers" and "Jubilee King," and especially in two Southwest-set stories about horse wranglers on movie sets, the animals come vividly, variedly alive. The movie-set tales also offer wry commentary on the film business: "I don't want to be connected to any movie that's got Kodiak bears and Mexicans in the same shot. That's just dumb."

A couple of tales — "Already Gone," "Ravendale Loop" — feel thin. But most of the work here is accomplished, even masterful, and promising of great things to come.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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