TERRY GROSS, host:
Ever since 1979, when Jayne Anne Phillips made a name for herself at age 26 with her first book of short stories "Black Tickets," she's been a writer admired both for her language and for her sharp and detailed evocation of the lives of ordinary working people. Phillips was born and raised in West Virginia, which is the setting in part of her latest novel called "Lark & Termite." Book critic Maureen Corrigan says she's happy to start off the year reviewing a winner.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: In these desperate times for the publishing industry, a lot of review copies of new books now come accompanied by personal letters from editors, singing the praises of the book under consideration. As a reviewer who routinely glances at many of these letters extolling the luminous, urgent, startling and/or fresh-voiced quality of a new work, I was caught up short by the note included in an advance copy of Jayne Anne Phillips's new novel, "Lark & Termite." The note began...
(Reading) It's a joy to send you Jayne Anne Phillips's new novel, but it's hard to define its unique quality.
Uh-oh, I thought. If that's the best that a senior editor can do to promote a book, either letter writing truly has become a lost art or the novel is really a dud. Or then, there's the prize lurking behind door number three: It really is hard to define its unique quality. I'll give it a whirl, but "Lark & Termite" is a category of story unto itself: mystical without being gooey; wry and terribly moving; as ornately contrived as Dickens, as poetic as Morrison, yet unselfconscious in tone and peopled with vivid, salt-of-the-earth characters, who mostly accept the limitations of their life with a shrug and another cup of coffee.
At its core, "Lark & Termite" is a war story. As one of the characters here says, people forget that a soldier's death goes on for years, for a generation, really. They leave people behind. The soldier in question is Corporal Robert Leavitt, a Jewish kid from Philadelphia, who's shipped off to Korea in 1950, the very beginning of the Korean War. Even worse luck, Leavitt finds himself on the move with a mass of South Korean refugees at No Gun Ri, the locale of a now-controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative story by the Associated Press. In 1999, AP reporters broke the story that South Korean civilians, attempting to flee the enemy by crossing American military lines, were shot down by American troops. The number of civilians killed remains under dispute.
What's not under dispute, from the opening of Phillips's novel, is that Leavitt will die in Korea, and yet, it's impossible not to root for a benevolent pardon for him. In this scene, a wounded Leavitt has been dragged into a dark railway tunnel by a young Korean girl, who's also trying to shelter her blind brother and an old woman. Phillips describes how the girl, her clothes covered in Leavitt's blood, crawls to a stream at the back of the cave to get water.
(Reading) The soldiers answer any skitter of stones, any involuntary cry or motion, with artillery rounds, one group shooting in response to the other. The girl waits, moves, waits, crawling, flat to the ground... [Leavitt] hears, in the dark, the sound of the girl pulling off her bunched shirt, feels her throat into the water by one long sleeve... She drags the shirt back over the ground. He hears her bury her face in the wet cloth, drink the squeezed water... Finally, she holds the wet cloth in her arms and turns to come back to them, moving against such resistance, such terrible drag, close to the tunnel wall.
All is for naught, we know, because other sections of Phillips's novel jump ahead to 1959 and focus on the people Leavitt left behind, most importantly, a severely handicapped son nicknamed Termite and his older teenaged half-sister, Lark. Lark and Termite, who are both commanding presences, live in a river town in West Virginia with their aunt, a waitress. The two storylines share moments of almost supernatural convergence. For instance, Lark and Termite's river town floods, and they ultimately find deliverance near a railway tunnel not unlike the one at No Gun Ri.
But the otherworldly intersections are not as hocus pocus as they might be, because Phillips is such a restrained writer. Her magic pops out of the mundane; it lurks in shabby living rooms and diners, offhand remarks and unconscious gestures. I said earlier that the plot of "Lark & Termite" is as highly contrived, as loaded with coincidences as a Dickens's novel, and I meant that as a compliment. But the saving graces in Phillips's more threadbare universe come courtesy, not of a Dickensian all-powerful God, but out of the love that lingers between people, across oceans and generations.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Lark & Termite" by Jayne Anne Philips. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a recording by the influential proto-punk band, the Stooges. The band's guitarist, Ron Asheton, was found dead this morning at his home in Ann Arbor. He was 60. Asheton co-founded the Stooges in 1967, along with his brother Scott and Iggy Pop. This is "Search & Destroy."
(Soundbite of song "Search & Destroy")
THE STOOGES: (Singing) I'm a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm. I'm a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb. I am a world's forgotten boy, The one who searches and destroys. Somebody got to help me, please. Somebody got to save my soul. Baby, detonate for me...