Have You Heard
By Anderson Ferrell
Bloomsbury, 295 pp., $23.95
This is a strange, and wonderful, novel about manners, breeding, and feeling, about finding one's proper place in the world. The plot is as old as ''Tom Jones" -- the rightful heir, expelled from home, inherits the kingdom -- but the fabulous twists and turns in the plot are completely up to date.
Jerry Chiffon, dressed in a cheap imitation of a Chanel suit with matching pumps, purse, and accessories, fires a shot at a racist Southern senator. How Jerry, local florist, decorator, and arbiter of style in Branch Creek, N.C., came to commit such an act occupies the ladies of the town for the remainder of the novel. Through their several deliciously distinct voices, we learn of Jerry's early tragic losses and his virtual adoption by Mrs. Maggie Labrette, the town's standard-bearer of taste, tact, and style. It is she who teaches Jerry life's most crucial lessons. She instructs him so that ''he saw formality and strict rules of behavior and presentation . . . anachronistic table manners . . . polite, encoded conversation . . . tests of acceptance as . . . acts of love and respect for an idea or quality or reverence for a place or certain people or one person." The power of discrimination is what she has to offer, and Jerry is her star pupil, her creation, her child. This is a beautiful, bountiful, and unusual book.
Ideas of Heaven:
A Ring of Stories
By Joan Silber
Norton, 250 pp., $23.95
These stories deftly create the ring promised by their subtitle, as major characters in one story reappear as minor players in another.
The punishing regimen of the dance instructor in the first story becomes explicable in the second, where his own humiliation and self-delusion are recalled. As a sadistic destroyer of dreams, he is opaque until the revelation of his sad folly in the second story. The lover who spurned him sang the sonnets of Gaspara Stampa, a 16th-century poet of unrequited love, ''sort of a 1500s version of the blues." Gaspara, who has been spurned, writes obsessively of her own tragic transcendence in the next story. In ''Ashes of Love," we meet a traveler who carries on his romantic journeys ''The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke." He quotes from Rilke, who wrote of Gaspara Stampa and her ''fierce example of soaring, objectless love."
The stories are about rapturous love and devastating loss. One happy lover describes himself ''like a macerated fruit soaked in happiness," while one bereft man, who sees his dead wife's shape on the street, feels ''foolish, like a dog leaping for a stick no one has thrown." Love, like these beautiful stories, offers devotion, consolation, and transcendence.
By Phillip Lopate
Crown, 421 pp., illustrated, $25.95
Phillip Lopate, lifelong New Yorker, has collected here ''a mixture of history, guidebook, architectural critique, reportage, personal memoir, literary criticism, nature writing, reverie, and who knows what else" about the shoreline of his urban homeland. The result is a lively and loving series of views of Manhattan from the West to the East Side, from the southern tip to the northern.
The first essays, on the Battery, Battery Park City, the harbor, and the old port, provide fascinating glimpses into the bureaucratic scuffling and political wrangling that produced lower Manhattan. The unsentimental views of the World Trade Center's beginning and ending are refreshing. West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, where Lopate lived for a time, are fondly recalled for their elegance, presenting a uniform skyline ''without freak or fantasy." He delights in Frederick Law Olmsted's Riverside Park with its ''terraces, woods, marina, and open, sloping lawns." The hero of the book is Robert Moses, usually deplored and despised. He was responsible not only for doubling the size of Riverside Park but also for creating Jones Beach, erasing urban slums, building almost all the highways and parkways in Greater New York, and constructing seven major bridges, and countless other projects. The anti-hero is Joseph Mitchell, whose book ''The Bottom of the Harbor" and essays in The New Yorker covered Lopate's turf with objective, self-effacing ease. Lopate writes personal essays. He is utterly and happily present and at home in this collection.
Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.