Niagara, by Mary Woronov. New York: Serpent's Tail. 216 pages. $14. BUY NOW

Snake, by Mary Woronov. New York: Serpent's Tail. 214 pages. $13. BUY NOW

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Mary Woronov and Jean Rhys may seem an improbable pairing, but Woronov and Rhys have a similarly fluid talent for picturing the social through the eyes of anguished, disintegrating women; the social formations they depict differ, but the worlds their characters inhabit look equally grotesque and asphyxiating. A ruminative, restless evocation of thwarted wishes and transient joys is typical of both authors. The private, useless satisfaction their heroines extract from acute observation is a kind of revenge on the realities that defeat them. Niagara's recurring invocation of the sound of water, the susurration and crashing of the falls, brings Rhys consciously, at first inexplicably, to mind. Niagara Falls and suicide are ancient friends, and Rhys's novels all depict women never far from self-destruction.

There is this, too: Both writers scrape away all garnish and filigree, strip the sentence of anything but what it means to say, track an emotion as it spreads from a wound, a kiss, a kindness, a betrayal, until it washes over the entire universe. Rhys's heroines live in a world that destroys them afresh every day; so do Woronov's. They hope for things but not very much, and they expect nothing and usually get it.

Narrated by Mei Li, known as Molly to all but her immediate family, Niagara opens in San Bernardino years after Molly and her high school boyfriend, Bobby, married and left Buffalo. Molly's brother, Kenny (Bobby's closest school friend), was fiercely and jealously loved by their otherwise cold, cash-fixated Chinese mother and ridiculed as effeminate by their permanently unemployed, alcoholic father, a Vietnam burnout. When Molly and Kenny graduated high school, Kenny proved his "manliness" by going over the falls in a barrel. His body was never recovered.

Bobby runs a car dealership. He cheats. Molly drinks. Molly drinks all dayˇlike Jean Rhys's women, not to strain the comparison. Her father dies. She goes to Buffalo for the funeral. She learns some unpleasant things. Her mother, whose mind is breaking down, announces she's moving to Florida. Soon afterward, the former dragon lady, senile and toothless, has to be placed in "managed care."

Some crucial information is withheld in Molly's first account of her childhood. Some she doesn't know herself, but she does hold back one vital fact until the middle of the book. The veracity of her memory is continually belied by later conversations with her mother in Florida, with her husband, and with one other important source. The meaning of what Molly knows about her own life and her idea of herself are turned inside out as Niagara proceeds. Even the secret she holds back proves later to mean the opposite of what she had supposed.

Niagara ultimately subverts every certainty it establishes. What's assumed to be fact vanishes under a second fact, the second one under a third. One of the novel's trickiest turns is unaccountably effective: the manner in which Woronov reveals the most shattering secretˇone that overturns every assumptionˇactually causes the reader to forget it for several chapters, as if the narrative flashed a mirage that instantly dissolved. Niagara's self-consuming structure has an admirable quality of risk, but its real brilliance resides in Woronov's portrait of Molly. Like the hapless, brave, quixotic, brutally unsentimental yet love-hungry, self-aware women of Rhys's novels, Molly is a downfallen child on a stumbling quest to find out what there is in this world to love, if anything, and to understand herself. What she comes to understand precipitates her obliteration. When we reach the final page, we cannot tell where Molly is going. We might guess it's nowhere pleasant, but we won't ever really know.

Gary Indiana's sixth novel, Do Everything in the Dark, is forthcoming from St. Martin's Press in 2003.


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