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Insight into traumas of the radically chic

PLENTY of novelists are adept at injecting a little extra funk into dysfunctional families, but few do so with more zest than Zoe Heller. Her slyly observed books are often written with cool, satirical detachment and feature characters and situations that seem ripped from the headlines.

Her spectacular second novel, "What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal,?echoed the Mary Kay Letourneau tabloid teacher-pupil sex case. Her new book, "The Believers,?traces the traumas of the Litvinoffs, a radically chic family living in post-9/11 Greenwich Village.

The paterfamilias, Joel, is a crusading lawyer of the William Kunstler type who, if the novel is optioned by Hollywood, seems predestined to be played by Ron Silver. In 1962, when Joel, on a visit to London, had first wooed his English wife, Audrey, he tried to impress her by bragging about legal work he was doing for the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and about having been kicked by a racist police captain in the bus station in Jackson. It was all a bit lost on Audrey, who at this stage of her life "had never met a Negro.?

Forty years later, when the couple are established in New York, Litvinoff, 72, suffers a stroke in the Brooklyn federal courthouse, where he is about to defend Mohammed Hassani, one of the Schenectady Six, a fictional group of Arab-Americans arrested for visiting an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 1998.

Joel lies unconscious in a hospital for almost the whole of the book, but nonetheless remains a large influence on the lives of his family, as each member ?the potty-mouthed, pot-smoking Audrey; their two daughters, one unhappy in love and work and haunted by her growing obesity, the other by her inability to choose between two faiths, left-wing politics and Orthodox Judaism; and an adopted, drug-addicted son ?seeks to uncover the true meaning of the family (and, of course, life).

As a meditation on radicalism and its impact on families, this is no "American Pastoral,?and the Litvinoffs are no tribe of Levov. But their struggles to find their beliefs ?in themselves, in their ill father, in politics and religion ?are absorbing. And the effort of the family to hold together as Joel, its centripetal force, ebbs away, keeps the novel moving along briskly. It's funny and sad at the same time.

There are familiar overtones in "The Believers.?Its depiction of a family galaxy that spins around an accomplished, famous and amorous father is reminiscent of Claire Messud's satirical novel "The Emperor's Children.?

Heller is an interesting hybrid. She grew up in England but now lives in New York City. Her journalist's training ?she wrote feature articles at one time for The Independent daily in London ? strongly inflects her novelist's voice.

After several chapters, I wanted more gossip about the latest contretemps in the Litvinoff household, the gorier the better. "The Believers?brims with clever dialogue. After an unhappy visit to meet their father's former mistress, with whom he had secretly fathered a child, the two sisters, Rosa and Karla, dish:

"She's one of the most self-satisfied, narcissistic people I've ever met. Did you take a look at her idiotic books??

"No,?Karla lied.

"Oh, God! It was all 'How to Read Palms?and diet books.?

"Well, you don't love someone because of the books they read ??

"Don't you??

And anyone who has sunk into low spirits will relate to this description: "Depression, in Karla's experience, was a dull, inert thing °?- a toad that squatted wetly on your head until it finally gathered the energy to slither off.?

Heller's journalistic distance enhances her powers of observation, but it also erects emotional barriers, and some readers may find it difficult to care deeply about these characters.

The most interesting seekers are the sisters, Karla and Rosa. Unhappy in her marriage to a union organizer, continually dissed by her mother, Karla at first seems the family doormat. But she gathers strength as the novel rolls along and finds unlikely love with a food-loving Egyptian immigrant who runs the newsstand at the hospital where Karla works. She has nothing in common with him politically, but he loves her with more vitality than anyone ever has.

Rosa mystifies her family with her plans to become religiously observant, and even she recoils from some Orthodox customs that strike her as demeaning to women. There are laugh-out-loud moments when she travels upstate to visit the rabbi who will become her mentor and gets almost everything wrong, including the laws forbidding touching light switches on the Sabbath.

"Rosa had some cause to regard herself as a worldly woman,?Heller writes. As a child, she had broken bread with Daniel Ortega and sung freedom songs with ANC activists in Soweto and played softball with Abbie Hoffman. By the age of 18, she had seen both her parents arrested for acts of civil disobedience and had twice been arrested herself.

"Yet, in truth, her worldliness applied to a very narrow band of the world, and there were large areas of ordinary American life about which her impeccably progressive, internationalist upbringing had left her astonishingly ignorant.?

The most maddening character is rude, profane Audrey, whose grating demands that Joel be kept alive at any cost drive his doctors and also her family nuts.

The other members of the extended family don't really rise above caricature, especially Lenny, the adopted son, and Joel's former lover Berenice, an African-American artist whose apartment, adorned with examples of her work, exhibits a graphic picture of her private parts. And the grand finale, after Joel's death, with one big, happy family reunion, feels like the end of a glib movie. Still, the quests of the various Litvinoffs make a compelling tale of familial self-discovery.


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