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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, September 23, 2001

First Novels Filled With Potential, Hope and Danger

Each year, hundreds of first novels are published by hopeful authors. Among this multitude, a few will become fabulously successful, with movie rights sold to Hollywood and feature articles in leading national magazines. A few of the authors will become professional writers, though not big sellers, who will have to supplement their income with teaching others to write. And some will be one-hit wonders, never to be heard from again.

Whatever happens to these first novelists, at this moment their lives are full of promise, and their first books are often both autobiographical and teeming with youthful energy. Even those who go on to successful careers may never write anything as good again.

All We Know of Heaven by Remy Rougeau (Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

Novels about monks are about as rare as monks themselves are getting to be, and novels written by those very monks are even rarer.

This summer Remy Rougeau, a Benedictine monk, toured the country in his cowl and robes, promoting his novel about the novitiate of a young Trappist monk named Paul Seneschal.

Paul and his brother monks are not particularly pious. Their prayer is their work around the community farm. Things go pretty smoothly for novice Paul, except when he experiences a period of sexual temptation and also when he can't get rid of a blinding headache.

The abbot doesn't pay much attention to the former, and his headache is mysteriously healed when the only noticeably holy monk in the place gives him a couple of aspirin.

Rougeau is the best writing monk since Thomas Merton, only without the pretentiousness.

Lit Life by Kurt Wenzel (Random House, 2001).

Wenzel has written a first novel about a writer who hit it really big with his first novel.

Protagonist Kyle Clayton was the toast of Manhattan after the publication of his first novel, Charmed Life. For six years he lived in a haze of drink and women and didn't write a word. Then he meets one of his writing heroes, Richard Whitehurst, a writer's writer who spurns but secretly craves popular success.

He goes to live with Whitehurst in the Hamptons, sobers up, and writes a second novel. Meanwhile, Whitehurst's marriage flounders and his mixed-up daughter turns up on his doorstep. It is a summer of productivity and renewed energy, but everything falls apart on Labor Day when Kyle's host's problems reach their climax.

Wenzel's first novel is entertaining, poignant, and gives us an insider's knowledge of the publishing industry.

About the Author by John Colapinto (HarperCollins, 2001).

There's more publishing insider material in Colapinto's debut. There's also a lot more suspense, though it's more like a horror novel than a mystery.

Cal Cunningham is a wannabe writer who is fated to steal his dead roommate's first novel, make a million dollars on it, marry the girl of his dreams, and be blackmailed by a monster of a punk girl named Les.

For a while, it looks like he's going to get away with everything, but then Les shows up at his doorstep with a copy of the original manuscript with his roommate's name on the title page. Things go from bad to worse after that but turn out all right in the end.

Cal even finally writes something in the form of a memoir of his experiences.

O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life by Thomas Wolfe (University of South Carolina, 2000).

Thomas Wolfe's first novel was Look Homeward Angel. This is the original version before Maxwell Perkins, his editor, got hold of it.

Thomas Wolfe is a great American writer whose work has been scandalously cut and changed by his editors. His books are much better in their original form.

They are long, of course, and richly poetic in language, but there is nothing like them for expressing a ravenous hunger for life and experience.

Admirers of Look Homeward Angel will be excited to read about Eugene Gant's father's early life, including his witnessing the Battle of Gettysburg.

Also included are Eugene's trips with his mother, Eliza, and a fuller description of Eugene's four years at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.