Two Novel Approaches to Coming of Age The coming-of-age story isn't new, but a couple of new novels based on this theme stand out. Alan Cheuse reviews Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, by Susan Gregg Gilmore, and The Flowers, by Dagoberto Gilb.


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Two Novel Approaches to Coming of Age

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

A lot of fiction has arisen from the tale of a young man or woman coming of age. Two variations on this motif recently arrived in bookstores. One comes from debut novelist Susan Greg Gilmore, the other from Texas writer Dagoberto Gilb. Here's our reviewer, Alan Cheuse.

ALAN CHEUSE: Break from your parents, discover that the past was different than what you thought it was, put your hometown in a rear view mirror. It's an old story, but a couple of new novels based on this theme stand out, mostly for good reasons.

First, Susan Gregg Gilmore's light-as-air fiction titled "Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen." This Georgia story starts so light I almost had to twist my own arm to keep reading. Our narrator comes in the form of a motherless preacher's daughter. Catherine Grace Cline has a dutiful Baptist boyfriend, and a lot of illusions.

More than anything, she wants to leave tiny Ringgold, Georgia. It's a little too quiet for her there. They do nothing much except go to church and grow tomatoes in Ringgold.

Catherine Grace's biggest thrill is walking to the Dairy Queen for a dilly bar, and she wants to quit town so bad she'd almost just curse - or tear up her recipe for strawberry jam. We do learn all about making the jam, but even after Catherine Grace succeeds in escaping from Ringgold and landing a job in Atlanta, the book still reads like meringue when you really want pie. But darn, as our heroine might say, I'm glad I kept going because before it ends the preacher's daughter makes a sad return home, and all of those illusions fall away, revealing everyone from daddy to her old boyfriend in a different light. And that recipe, well, this story's author's got it almost just right.

The main character in our second novel couldn't be more different. "The Flowers" by Dagoberto Gilb centers on a teenage Chicano boy named Sonny Bravo. He's living with his mother and her new gringo contractor husband somewhere out west in a sweltering two-bedroom apartment, in a building called "The Flowers," of course. And what's in the name? A lot of folks who don't smell so sweet. We meet a racist construction worker, a dodgy car salesman, the lusty wife of a drug dealer and a young girl caring for her infant brother who declares that sometimes, sometimes she hates being Mexican.

Sonny takes to stealing money and fooling around with the dealer's wife, but deep down, he really wants the girl. She was so chula, he says. Her eyes, the whites of them, the black of them, her eyelashes, her eyebrows, her nose, her cheeks, her lips, her chin, her neck, each strand of her hair in place as alive as the ones that floated in the breeze while I stood at the open door wishing I knew how to make her kiss.

Along with Sonny's daydreams come lessons about life fast and hard, his adolescence becoming haunted by violence at home and outside on the streets. The age to which this boy is comes is quite different than what you find in Ringgold, Georgia. No tomatoes, no ice cream, certainly no pie, just the rip and run of city life. And yet through it all, the taste of something sweet, of faith, hope, of love of the offing, even as sirens scream out above an angry city.

BLOCK: The novels are "Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen" by Susan Gregg Gillmore and "The Flowers" by Dagoberto Gilb.

Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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