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The webs we weave

IN Janet Burroway's latest novel, "the fundamental news has to do with pain, fear, sadness, or the mere and lucky lack thereof." This thesis holds true whether the news is personal or political. Dana Ullman, the appealing central character in "Bridge of Sand," is on her way to a funeral -- her husband, a state senator, has died of cancer -- when she sees smoke "hurling itself up" from a Pennsylvania field. It's September 11, 2001, and United Flight 93 has just gone down. Dana's bereavement immediately becomes a non-event, eclipsed by national catastrophe.

Perhaps over generous, yet wryer than most martyrs, 38-year-old Dana studied art history in college but gave up personal ambitions to further her husband's career. Though she came to dislike the man, she nursed him through his final illness. In the aftermath, as she tries to adjust to the changes in her own life, she finds herself imagining the last moments in the lives of the 9/11 victims.

Finally asking herself, "what next?" Dana resolves to search for her future in her past. Driving south, she plans to retrace a nomadic childhood in which her parents constantly sought happiness in the next town on the map. She doesn't get far. In Brunswick, Georgia, her grandmother's house has given way to a strip mall, another of the losses that have defined her life - not just her husband but her parents and grandparents and, crucially, a daughter who died only two days after birth.

Disappointment leads Dana to impulsively look up Cassius Huston, once a bag boy at the grocery where she worked in high school. Why Cassius? She remembers him as "ghetto cool" with "a conscious, gangly grace." Friendship with this poor black teenager would have been impossible back then, and phoning him now makes no sense. Nonetheless, when they meet they begin a passionate affair, an assertion of hope against grief.

The adult Cassius is a sexual dynamo not unlike Zora Neale Hurston's Tea Cake - muscular, unflagging in stamina, affectionate and thoughtful in small ways, even folding Dana's clothes in the morning. This may sound too good, or too romantically stereotypical, to be true, but Cassius is just what Dana needs. Now employed as a security guard at the local paper mill, he's the loving father of a little girl whose mother can't seem to let go of their failed marriage.

That's about the extent of what we learn about him. Cassius never quite takes shape as an individual, existing mostly as an embodiment of the longings Dana never satisfied while she was married - for sex, for love, for her own contentment. Clearly it's time someone like Cassius "painted her into being."

In depicting this relationship, Burroway, the author of seven previous novels and an influential textbook on writing fiction, tackles some big topics - including Dana's atavistic racial attitudes. Because she concludes that conversation with Cassius can be "a convoluted minefield," Dana decides it's better simply "to respond directly to the sight and smell of him" - "even though it felt a bit of a failure, too, a little cheapening, to pursue only the desire." Here and elsewhere, she realizes she has been deluded in believing herself to be open-minded. She has, for example, had the notion that Cassius's family "must want a pale, educated, loving partner for him," so she's surprised by their hostility. "She hadn't conceived of equal-opportunity prejudice."

Cassius' estranged wife leaves Dana a threatening letter. Even scarier is a later act of vandalism: Dana returns to her motel room one night to find the door dripping with ketchup. It might seem almost comical - a childish version of voodoo's decapitated chickens and buckets of blood - but it's enough to frighten her into fleeing farther south.

In the racially divided coastal town of Pelican Bay, Florida, this privileged Northerner digs into a working-class Southern existence. She rents a cabin and settles among a mix of young mothers and elderly people, including Cassius' Aunt Trudy, who is both cleaning woman and clandestine lover to Solly, the white owner of a grocery store. When he dies unexpectedly, it's Dana who, surprisingly, inherits everything he owns - because, she concludes, he wants her to decide who should get the property.

The heirs apparent are his nephew's widow and her teen-witch daughter, whose claims are complicated by a family secret. But perhaps Trudy is the one who deserves to inherit; to all intents, she was Solly's common-law wife, even though their relationship was secret. The parallels with her own situation aren't lost on Dana. The fact that a "cracker" left her more than she got from her seemingly wealthy husband needs no further comment. There are bigger questions of justice and character. Who has stronger claim to a man's chattels, his blood relations or a lover? How far should boundaries of "love" and "family" extend?

"It was not a mystery," Dana tells herself, looking back on the course her life has taken, "but a web of mysteries." Somewhere in that web is a connection to the people who lost their lives on 9/11. Burroway's attempt to bring political issues into a consideration of private life is admirable, but in the end these historical signposts don't fit into Dana's story; her deeply felt personal upheaval has a more visceral appeal than the suffering of strangers. When she tries to put her own sorrow into perspective by thinking about those strangers, her imagination feels like an attempt to look away from her own life. It's also hard not to wonder if the racial conflict in her relationship with Cassius might have been willfully imposed - if she's so uncomfortable with her passions that she must set up obstacles to thwart them.

"Just because you've decided to take on race," Dana's best friend points out, "it doesn't mean you don't have to deal with all the other hassles." It's those "other hassles" - family obligations, romantic love and self-fulfillment - that come through most convincingly, and memorably, in Burroway's clever and compassionate prose.


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