September 27, 2006

Between The Covers

Cover designer Keith Frankel clearly understands Michael Laser's intent in Dark & Light, an impressive, authentic-sounding, thought-provoking novel about race, class, loneliness and love in New York City.

At once clever and ironic — the title, alone, suggests subject matter that will move beyond black and white — the cover shows two faces in profile, a Caucasian male in black, an African-American woman in white, their silhouettes blending into a photo of a starkly furnished room. A faint trace of an apartment building through a window locates the story as urban; books in a case, a lone chair, a bare floor and a wall define the isolation of the owner. The apartment, a co-op at 2274 Broadway, belongs to Edmund Naughton, who comes home from his computer management job one evening to find a young black woman sitting on his doorstep.

She's there the following days, and on an irrational, sympathetic whim, after he decides she's not a panhandler, he offers her his place to stay, if she has nowhere to go. Before this unusual opening, however, an italicized one-page prologue has Edmund listening to her play the piano.

"The piece is by Mozart, he recognizes the tune. She has surprised him once again. He expected — what? R&B? Motown? . . . She's a sloppy musician, she hits a fair number of wrong notes, but she catches the spirit of the piece perfectly. Hearing the galloping music fill his small apartment gives him such satisfaction that his head tingles." The scene works its way into the narrative, midway.

Laser skillfully compresses a lot of information by way of selective details. Edmund has a hooded cashmere robe in his closet, which reminds him of his daughter, to whom he had given a similar one some years ago. He flips through a Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue, then calls "his ex-wife in Houston to ask whether his daughter, Kristen (who still lived somewhere in Manhattan, as far as he knew) had found a job yet . . . " and so the situation emerges: Edmund is a middle-aged grind, financially comfortable but estranged from family and without friends.

By contrast, loud and low-taste Careese McNeil, black dialect and all, is a recovering alcoholic, forbidden by her mother to see her young, out-of-wedlock daughter, whom she injured in a horrific accident one drunken afternoon. Laser shifts back and forth between Edmund and Careese, exploring in third person their interior thoughts, which spill over into assumptions each has about the other. Both are uneasy, though both increasingly aware of the need for companionship.

Careese fears Edmund will demand sexual favors in exchange for his generosity; he, that she or her punk brother Camron will rob him. Each proves right and wrong about their prejudices. Both have much to learn (light defusing darkness) about how far trust can or should go. Honesty cuts deep, across class and race. Camron observes that he's supposed to be "this criminal, the lowest of the low, a drug dealer" but who buys from him? "The cream of the crop — lawyers, stock brokers, computer analysts. Everybody use a little now and then . . . Lot of people out there be scamming drugs, selling dummy drugs, but not me . . . Just wish I could get some respect for my work."

Although the growing attachment between Edmund and Careese might suggest another Upper West Side love story between lost souls, Dark & Light is far from being sentimental or cliché. As one of Careese's friends remarks, "It's hard enough to find a man who loves you — you want to choose by color, go buy a car." The author knows his way around the world of alcoholics and competitive, corporate techies, not to mention the city, with all its various sights, sounds and smells.

Though clearly written for adults, Dark & Light should also get into the hands of adolescents (the market for Laser's previous book, 6-321 ). The story it tells and the way it tells it ring true, and, if introduced properly, it may likely seduce savvy but disaffected youngsters into reading literature.

Dark & Light: A Love Story by Michael Laser. The permanent Press, 231 pp., $18 (paper).

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