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FIRST TIME OUT

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Comedy and tragedy abound, respectively, in The Cuban Prospect and A Mouthful of Air, two debut novels that attempt, in completely different ways, to explore the dark side of modern human wishes.

THE CUBAN PROSPECT by Brian Shawver (Overlook Press, $24.95, 286 pp)

The Cuban Prospect, a sort of Our Man in Havana meets Field of Dreams, is a darkly comic exploration of the human condition. The hero is Dennis Birch, a failed major-league catcher turned minor-league talent scout, who has been sent to Cuba by "the organization" to help smuggle a boy wonder pitcher out of the backwoods of Cuba into the fame and fortune of American baseball.

Like Our Man in Havana, the hero is a bungler, completely unprepared for the challenge ahead. Like the hero of Field of Dreams, Birch also is a believer in baseball as the synergy of talent and timing. Though he may not be driven by the need to buy his daughter a horse, as the famous Graham Greene hero was, he is consumed with the notion of making good. In fact, what Birch wants more than anything is to do something great, to be remembered for one great moment in the annals of baseball, even if it is only as a footnote in the soon-to-be-magnificent career of Ramon Diego Sagasta, the Cuban prospect.

That the smuggling goes awry from the start is almost a given. But what makes The Cuban Prospect a hit is the author's sure sense of his story. He leads his readers through a downward spiral of mistakes and misunderstandings and, in the process, shines a light on one man's understanding of his own potential for grace and grandeur in a hopelessly seamy world.

A MOUTHFUL OF AIR by Amy Koppelman (MacAdam/Cage Publishing, $23, 212 pp)

A Mouthful of Air, in contrast to The Cuban Prospect, is a tragic story of a young woman groping her way through a life that is as far from the mythic proportions of baseball as one life can get. If anything, Julia Davis, the heroine, is a woman who shares all the tragedy of Sylvia Plath's life with none of the poetry and striving for career. She is, in fact, a young woman who has lost any sense of why she is alive, who struggles to make sense of her role as a young mother, as the wife of a loving husband who is an ample provider. Yet, though Davis herself is no poet, Koppelman's prose is as spare and powerful as poetry.

The novel opens as Julia is returning to a life she attempted to leave by suicide only a month earlier. A victim of intense postpartum depression one year after the birth of her son, Teddy, Julia is living one step, one breath at a time. "She takes a mouthful of air, holds it, releases. This is something she learned at the hospital. If she wants to be a wife to Ethan and a mother to Teddy, she must allow herself to breathe."

Yet it is a mark of Koppelman's success as a storyteller that Julia never seems small or self-pitying.

A Mouthful of Air is a portrait of a woman who wonders, daily, whether each new day will be her last. Rooted in the minutiae of modern city and, eventually, suburban life, the novel finds its strength in Julia's struggle to be normal. Each day Julia finds reasons to be hopeful like a somnambulist finds reasons to believe she is awake. In the end, it is with this very trick of the mind that Koppelman completes her devastating tale.

Mindi Dickstein lives in New Jersey and is currently writing lyrics for the Broadway-bound musical Little Women.