Short takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / September 20, 2009

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By Douglas A. Martin
Seven Stories, 224 pp., paperback, $16.95

Douglas Martin’s previous novel, “Branwell,” invoking the Brontë sisters’ dissolute brother, was an imaginative stretch. In “Once You Go Back,” Martin turns inward to create a dark and dreamlike (self-)portrayal of the sexual coming of age of a boy acutely aware that he doesn’t fit the roughneck masculine mold into which his Southern military hometown forces its sons.

The childhood the narrator describes is a painful one circumscribed by absences. His Northern family has been stranded in this alien place by his father’s inscrutable defection. His mother, a nurse, must work long hours to keep up, leaving her latchkey kids in makeshift arrangements. While other boys play outside, the narrator ripens indoors like a hothouse flower. He obliges the sexual curiosity of a neighborhood girl, but it is the stepfather his mother brings into the household - a man’s man, grease-stained and with a brutal temper -whose presence ignites the youth’s erotic self-awareness.

This autobiography-novel works better as the former than the latter. Its feverish self-portrait seizes center stage, but there is little flesh on the bones of other characters.

His Mentor and Invented Psychoanalysis

By Louis Breger
Basic Books, 160 pp., $22.95

It seems poetic justice that the framer of the Oedipus complex was acting out an Oedipal drama of his own. Sigmund Freud was celebrated - not least by himself - as the inventor of psychoanalysis. But in fact, says scholar and psychoanalyst Louis Breger, Freud stole the psychoanalytic ball from his mentor Josef Breuer and ran with it for all he was worth.

It was Breuer who, according to this detailed and lucid account, developed the “talking cure” in the seminal case of “Anna O.” Breuer was apparently the very model of the compassionate medical man, displaying little of the coldness and condescension, not to mention the sex obsession, we associate with Freudian analysis. But the wealthy and well-established Breuer was not driven as the younger, poorer Freud was to trample any and all competitors in a hungry grab for success. Most significant in determining whose methods have stood the test of time, Breuer was unencumbered by the notorious misogyny that rendered many of Freud’s theories ineffective in their day and ludicrous in ours.

Breger’s knowledgeable retelling of the birth of psychoanalysis as a poignant family feud is openly partisan but no less persuasive for wearing its Breuerite heart on its sleeve.

By Lucy Honig
Counterpoint, 240 pp., paperback, $14.95

This quirky paradox of a novel, a global fiction on a domestic scale, revolves around a wry middle-aged narrator named Erika. A transplanted New Yorker, she works at an institute in Boston, a city she actively dislikes, coaching health care professionals from around the world in writing up their research.

The attacks of 9/11 jolt Erika right through the looking glass. Instead of a more or less orderly progression, her life now seems a universe of circles of myriad sizes madly trying to dock with one another. Her affair with a married man; her obsession with a clueless colleague: these personal intrigues inflate and bump into other, much larger matters. Members of a Somali family she has befriended fall victim to tragedies that leave Erika feeling helpless. And far beyond the immediate setting of the novel, on a Kenyan tea plantation and in the slums of Nairobi - and by extension throughout the world - people suffer as Erika’s students and colleagues go on drafting their ineffectual studies.

In prose alternately lyrical and pragmatic, Lucy Honig evokes above all the chaotic sense of vertigo that comes from suddenly feeling a shrinking Earth spin uncontrollably under our feet.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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