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NATURE UNLOCKS TURMOIL TORNADO ALLEY

By Craig Nova
Delacorte
469 pages, $18.95

By WILLIAM L. MORRIS
News Book Reviewer

CRAIG NOVA IS a novelist in his 40s who lives in Vermont and has written several books that have been critical successes. His third book, "Incandescence," was even a bit of a cause celebre. It's an excellent city novel, but one of a kind.

He quickly turned from the burned-out-hippie vision best captured by Robert Stone to a more rural atmosphere similar to the minimalists. Still, he is not a minimalist.

His recent books are firmly set in nature. While their characters are often burned out, it's not city life, but lost opportunities and pressure from half-understood parental conflicts and pressure from an abusive community during adolescence that did it. The overriding impression in Nova is of fatalism not unlike that of the naturalists of the last century.

He writes in a straightforward style, somewhere between Anne Tyler and Raymond Carver. There is wise calmness to his voice, but also a dislocation that pervades even his style. This book is like a good-looking car with one bad shock absorber. Nova's writing is haunted. It can also be funny or visionary, but it's always haunted.

"Tornado Alley" was going to be called "Glare." It is the central image still, a kind of deeper form of incandescence. The idea of glare is that the total effect of a strong personality today is so strident that it cannot stand itself and is dangerous to those drawn to it.

There is nothing difficult about the stories told, but Nova's narrative style demands some attention. They are written from several perspectives, all in the first person. Two sections are written by the same people. These central characters are Marie Boule and Ben Lunn. Three-quarters of the book passes before they meet. Most of their experiences are with others. We get the feeling they were made for each other, but by the time they meet, they have become set in their ways.

Marie Boule suffers through the indignation of selling vacuum cleaners with her father. The customers refer to her as jail bait -- before she knows what they are talking about. Nova is able to make both the reader and the character realize important changes are taking place from the inside as they happen.

Ben's father is a small town doctor who can't hold on to his flaky wife. She goes to Hollywood, almost driven there by the mute admiration of the town. This is difficult for young Ben to understand.

Both Ben and Marie are bright and beautiful, but both are townies, subject to the self-hate of provincialism. Both enter into romance naively and are met by jet set manipulators who rape them mentally and then physically.

Out of this Sherwood Anderson maelstrom comes a meteorologist who can predict tornadoes and a Mayflower madam who creates them. They finally meet, but the man has developed a habit of striking out in a violent rage of impotence. The one time he connects is disaster.

Marie becomes a femme fatale who knows it as Ben becomes a book worm with window-breaking rages. He becomes the intuitional man; she becomes the willful woman. Both are frustrated and prone to destructive behavior. After they meet, a life of crime seems one possible way out but as soon as they start, their basically healthy instincts block that path. They self-destruct instead.

It may not seem like much of a plot but it is written in such a way that the reader is drawn further and further into the tornado. You try to drive away from it in your mind, but that makes it even worse.

It's a book about change. Whether for better or worse people assess an untenable situation and make a break for it. The final break makes this book a circle for Ben. He stays with his children as long as possible. In this way, this book is a lot like Frank Conroy's recent masterpiece, "Mid Air." Ben has learned from his parents but he is still a victim of forces larger than he.

Nova writes about the most normal people and what they do -- hairdressing, hunting, weather forecasting, selling vacuum cleaners or having affairs out of boredom or from fear of violence. In this he may seem like a minimalist, a Raymond Carver a Frederick Barthelme. His writing is much more ambitious, though, than just cutting away at life. In fact he sometimes errs on the side of trying to do too much with these people and settings.

The message of this book is that the suffering, the passive, always win. Assertion never can.

William Carlos Williams said of poetry that is hard to get the news from it but people die miserably in their beds every day for lack of what can be found there. The same is true of a well-crafted novel. The novelists are out there now, but the will to read them seems to have shriveled.

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