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Books approach ensemble genre differently

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THE MARAUDERS. By Tom Cooper. Crown. 304 pages. $26.

OF THINGS GONE ASTRAY. By Janina Matthewson. The Friday Project. 278 pages. $19.99.

The ensemble story is maybe the easiest to pull off and the toughest to pull off well. Flipping back and forth among characters can give a novel a madcap sort of feel that makes a plot dance.

To do it well, though, the dance itself has to tell a larger story. In other words, what each character does has to play off what each other character does to a resolve. Think William Faulkner.

This brings us to two ensemble character-fiction novels, “The Marauders” and “Of Things Gone Astray.”

Tom Cooper’s marauders are a grab bag of ne’er-do-wells living in each other’s way in a Louisiana bayou fishing town in the aftermath of the Deep Horizon oil spill. It’s black humor and rough; it opens with one of the lead characters missing his artificial arm:

“Lindquist went back to Sully’s. Sully was wiping the bar with a hand towel ...

“ ‘Somebody took my arm,’ (Lindquist) said.

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“ ‘Took?’

“ ‘Stole,’ Lindquist said. ‘Somebody stole my (expletive) arm.’

“A stymied silence fell over the room, for a moment the only sound the jukebox: a Merle Haggard song, ‘I Wonder If They Ever Think Of Me,’ playing faintly. The men glanced at each other and shook their heads. Finally one of them, Dixon, began to laugh. Then Prejean and LaGarde, the two other men at the table.”

Janina Matthewson’s “Astray” characters are an English village of seemingly ordinary people to whom extraordinary things are happening. How extraordinary, you ask? Well, one of them is turning into a tree. “The bark was now about the height of a pair of low-rider jeans. Strangely it was becoming more comfortable. Cassie wasn’t sure if it was because she was growing used to it or because her weight was now supported by wood instead of muscle and bones.”

Cooper plays for guffaws at the characters’ expense, amid a pretty grimy tale of despoiled lives, a la Elmore Leonard. Matthewson piquantly pokes away at your notions of just what does and doesn’t make for “real,” almost fantastically. Her tale is far subtler.

But the real difference between the two novels comes down to how they dance. Cooper’s characters crash into each other, then bounce away in every direction with no real resolution. Matthewson’s characters seem to have nothing to do with each other at first, but their disparate lives gradually wind together to say something profound about individualism and community.

One is for dark laughs. The other is for keeps.

Reviewer Bo Petersen is a reporter for The Post and Courier.

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