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Sober New Time 

Part-time Tucsonan Victor Lodato's tight debut novel leaves no loose threads

I want you to call me 'Lufwa,'" the girl says to her beautiful best friend. The name is the word "awful" spelled backward, and the girl has already told the reader that she aspires to be awful. Her beautiful friend complies: She calls her "Lufwa," which sounds like "La Fois," and the girls fall out, thinking that the girl has named herself "king of France."

But the girl telling the story is an unreliable narrator, and the writer of this lovely new novel is a poet and playwright who would probably know his French, and would definitely know his word choice and his irony, and the difference between "le roi" ("king") and "la fois" ("the time") and "la foi" ("faith"). Together, these contribute a delicate, telling touch to a story about a powerless child searching for something to believe in, in a time of uncertainty.

The book is set in the near future. A second Sept. 11-like attack has occurred, and ongoing war plays in the background. The immediate tragedy, however, in the life of 13-year-old Mathilda is the family devastation caused by the death of her 16-year-old sister, Helene, the year before. We don't know about this until Chapter 3, when Mathilda baits us a bit by saying, "Did I tell you this already? I did, but you don't remember. You didn't understand the code ... ."

Then she tells us a man pushed Helene into the path of a train. Mathilda can't let that go.

Her mother has sunk into an alcohol-fueled depression. Her father is enervated with sadness. Mathilda seems to be the only living human in the household. To assure herself that her professor-parents aren't dead, she spies to see if the books they're reading rise and fall as they breathe. No wonder the child talks too loudly, pinches the dog and aspires to awfulness.

She's also plucking her hair out strand by strand. That may have another cause.

Mathilda Savitch is part-time Tucsonan Victor Lodato's first novel. He's been an actor and a performance artist, and you can feel the influence of performance in his narrator's voice.

Calling their life an "island of grief," Mathilda fills the vacuum of parental neglect with memories, imagination, speculation and scheming. Through flashbacks and Mathilda's sleuthing, Lodato presents Helene as beautiful, brilliant and in a dangerous relationship. Through Mathilda's ambivalence, Lodato paints former golden lives of her parents, but a disturbing current state: Her mother spends her days in a revealing bathrobe, and Mathilda catches her on all fours searching for hidden bottles.

We watch Mathilda entering puberty as both childlike and jaded. She rummages through her parents' bedside stands but wishes they'd "put locks on their stupid cabinets to keep people from snooping." She uncovers Helene's stash of hidden e-mails ("r u wet?") and muses on the tragedy of dying a virgin. She can find anything on the Internet, and regularly visits fema.gov for the "disaster of the day." She's in love with beautiful Anna but attracted to blue-haired Kevin.

Lodato's writing is lush and dense. We spend our time in Mathilda's mind, and it's not a boring place. She's a reader. In a time of "terror," she finds solace in Anne Frank's diary. The child of secular parents, she searches for explanations and expiations through religion—any religion. She assembles a personal pantheon consisting of Krishna, the crucified Christ, a pretended Protestant allegiance and the collection of "watchers" she imagines overseeing her life.

Mathilda's need for divine intercession grows as the plot tightens.

That would be "plot such as it is" tightens. The action meanders for much of the book, through Mathilda's interactions and through plans related to the anniversary of Helene's death—and the book sags a bit in the middle. Fortunately, Lodato pulls out some suspense, tautens it with a sense of threat, and throws in a surprise by the end. We realize only after the fact how precisely he's spun out the action.

Mathilda Savitch is a fine debut novel. Lodato's writing is as tight as tapestry—with no thread loose. His central character is funny, flawed, multifaceted and fully realized.

And she's an unforgettable child of a sober new time: "Alone, I think," she natters to herself. "A.L.O.N.E. Enola backwards. Like the first plane of evil a long time ago. The first important bomb fell out of its belly. But that was a different war, ancient history. Everything was in black and white. Which made it a lot easier to watch."

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