The Magic Mountain 

Imagination leads youngster through Bitter Milk.

Growing up in Black Sulphur Knobs, in the shadow of Chilhowee Mountain in Blount County in East Tennessee, would be hard on any kid too sensitive for his own good - what with the isolation, the models of manhood, and, for religious relief, the Primitive Baptist Church. In 1987, growing up was doubly hard on 9-year-old Loren Garland, a 150-pound overeater, voracious reader, mama's boy, and, let's say it, sissy.

Loren's "Mama" (there's no "Papa" to speak of) is Opal Avery Garland, a 35-year-old whose "gender dysphoria" means she'd just as soon be a he. Loren's aunt, Ruby, is a hard-drinking, cards-playing housewife, and Ruby's husband, Dusty, is a land-grabbing, bull-dozing developer. Dusty's son, Eli, is a fifth-grade alcoholic in the making, and Loren's uncle, Cass, is a by-the-book redneck. Cass' two-timing girlfriend, Delia, is the young sister of Carnetta, who's taken a shine to Opal, who goes by Avery. And "Papaw," Loren's grandfather, is a foul-mouthed and seen-it-all old-timer. As for "Mamaw," Loren's grandmother: She's up and died.

How do we know all this? Luther, Loren's imaginary twin (or is it friend? enemy? co-conspirator? co-consciousness?), says so, the same Luther who narrates Bitter Milk (Picador, 195 pp., $13, in paperback) by John McManus, a 27-year-old East Tennessee native now living in Austin, author of two collections of short stories, and the youngest-ever winner, in 2000, of the prestigious Whiting Writers' Award.

Bitter Milk is McManus' first novel, and while it may have its biblical parallels with the Book of Job (as an introductory quotation suggests), it's more a test of wills: that of Luther, who argues for flight, and that of Avery, who argues, by word and by deed, for fight, with Loren, suffering the first stirrings of adolescence, caught, confused. Or is it the three of them in concert against the wide, uncomprehending world? A world that values brute strength over book smarts, muscle over empathy.

It's a hallucinatory, chapterless set-piece that McManus describes despite the store of spot-on naturalistic description, difficult perhaps for readers to first enter into but an unfolding depiction of the psychological, bodily issues at stake: issues of sexual identity and gender identity, of an individual's formation and differentiation, of a personality "projected" or in hiding, of satisfaction and hunger, desire and shame, these issues among other challenges for young Loren: the response to authority, the possibility of friendship, and the duty to family.

Heavy-duty? Yes, but a book not without humor in the case of paddle-happy Miss Rathbone (Loren's wreck of a fourth-grade teacher) and Mr. Ownby (the school's take-charge principal who's handy with a paddle himself).

You're interested in reading one direction in contemporary American fiction? You're open to fresh possibilities of narrative? You're patient with a proven writer making his way into broader territory? You're ready for a novel that ends with one of the more affecting closing statements of the year? See Bitter Milk. n

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