Humor with a moral bite marks Haynes's commendable second novel of the season, as it did its his exemplary first, Live at Five (Forecasts, Mar. 4). Again, the action centers on African Americans in St. Paul. The narrative feels as much like a chain of linked short stories as a novel proper; each chapter has a title (""The Saving Place,"" ""Sunday Dinner,"" etc.), and each focuses on one of several characters, through first- or third-person narrative. At the book's heart wobbles the Gabriel family, enduring assaults on their dignity, sanity and middle-class status. There's Marcus Gabriel, despairing of getting through to the sixth-graders he teaches, crazy over his ""significant other,"" LaDonna Brown, who's serving time in a women's detention center for attempting to pull a fast real-estate deal. There's the couple's son, Ali, 12, trying to grow up right despite urban pressures. And there's the Gabriel matriarch, Verda, who despises LaDonna as a ""heathen"" and pulls other characters, including a white Pentecostal neighbor, into her orbit. The flow of events is choppy and episodic. Some chapters work better than others (the one in which Ali is suspected by a bigoted school official of a sex crime presents laughs mixed with righteous rage; the one featuring LaDonna's complaint letter to Ted Koppel about jailhouse conditions is sitcom pat). But Haynes demonstrates throughout that he knows these folk and their problems; that he has eyes that can see and a voice that can speak-with wit and even wisdom. (Apr.) FYI: Heathens, like many New Rivers books, was a winner of the Minnesota Voices Project. So was Haynes's first novel, Right by My Side, the publisher's bestselling title to date.
Reviewed on: 01/01/1996 Release date: 01/01/1996 Genre: Fiction