One True Thing
By Anna Quindlen
294 pages; $22
Perhaps Anna Quindlen has merely written a wonderful novel. But many journalists may also find it a parable that touches their own lives, one that will make them think, and maybe squirm.
Quindlen is the gifted, Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist who recently announced she's leaving daily journalism to concentrate on fiction. In "One True Thing," her second novel, she writes about a young magazine journalist who also gives up her job, but for far different reasons.
Ellen Gulden, 24, on the brink of the big time in Manhattan, is browbeaten by her imperious English professor father to jettison her emerging career and her jerk boyfriend, move back to a small college town and tend to her mother, Kate, who has been cruelly struck by terminal liver cancer at age 46.
For Gulden, the return home represents a guilt-induced surrender. She's a classic bright child fleeing her charmed but oppressive childhood, and the abrupt demand to come back robs her of the breakaway rite of passage she has counted on.
But home she comes, where she redefines her relationship with both parents and nurses her mother through horrid deterioration. Eventually she is charged with her mother's mercy killing, although, as she puts it, "I did not kill my mother. I only wished I had."
Quindlen handles this with great control, refusing to sentimentalize or sensationalize any of it, even at the expense of occasional tedium. She has an understated, lyrical style and a powerful eye for the meaningful intimacies of ordinary life.
Even a plot twist at the end doesn't seem contrived but feeds the themes she's already established.
This seems to me a fine novel by an artist who is growing with every work, but I also think it says something special, and disturbing, to journalists. At the beginning Gulden is an ambitious, up-and-coming writer; at the end, having encountered real life up close, she has left the profession.
Is Quindlen trying to tell us something? Is she explaining her own path?
In an early scene, Gulden describes herself as "smug, self-involved, successful, and what in my circles passed for happy."
"Ellen's got the life," her brother comments. "She gets paid to be a wiseass for a living."
By the end, she's feeling this about a life in journalism: "It was the idea of facing a future skimming the surface of life, winging my way in and out of other people's traumas, crises, confusions, and passages, engaging them enough to get the story but never enough to be indelibly touched by what I had seen or heard."
Certainly, there will always be a gap between journalism and literature, and it's understandable that a writer of Quindlen's talent would aspire to higher arts.
But as a columnist, Quindlen has always owned the gift of writing about the human condition with emphasis on the human; about political life, with stress on the life.
That kind of journalism can go beyond "skimming the surface of life." It would be sad if Quindlen, of all people, has concluded otherwise.
Maybe columnists tend to be fine writers to begin with. Or maybe something about their job breeds good work — the companionship they develop with readers, for instance, or the incessant need to study their territory and draw insights.
Whatever, Steve Lopez is another columnist (for the Philadelphia Inquirer) who has written a touching, even haunting novel.
"Third and Indiana" tells of a crime-infested, lost-hope section of Philadelphia where 14-year-old Gabriel Santoro has been sucked into drug dealing and depravity. Gabriel is a compelling and heartbreaking character, a talented artist abandoned by his father and overwhelmed by circumstances, yet prodigiously mature in certain ways.
Gabriel takes up with a malevolent drug lord, Diablo, and a semi-comic small-time hood, Eddie Passarelli, and through them Lopez manages to juxtapose a thickly meditative study of evil with improbable subplots worthy of Elmore Leonard.
Lopez specializes in paradox. His kids embody both ruthless bravado and baby-faced terror; the adults, both faith and despair. Villains are both monstrous and pathetic, wise-cracking street rogues and remorseless perverts. Everything about the book operates at the misty margins between good and evil.
There's a touch of magical realism as Gabriel's long-suffering mother, Ofelia, pedals her bike through the darkness, searching for her runaway son. Even as you sense the story sinking, quicksand-like, toward tragedy, Lopez offers a balancing vision of human triumph.
The story alone is a true page-turner, but Lopez aims higher, and succeeds. This is a book that manages to be both cynical and tender, that somehow, artfully, conveys both hopelessness and eternal hope.
Stepp, an AJR senior editor, teaches at the University of Maryland College of Journalism.
A Kind of Grace: A Treasury of Sportswriting by Women, edited by Ron Rapoport (Zenobia Press, 386 pages, $14.95). A wide-ranging, immensely readable collection of 73 articles by female sportswriters. Rapoport, a Los Angeles Daily News columnist, has selected serious topics rather than game stories, ranging from how athletes cope with obsessive followers or deadly disease to how women learn competitiveness. The writers include well-known names (Jane Gross, Lesley Visser, Joan Ryan), plus many local and regional talents.