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By Mike Hudson

Niagara, by Mary Woronov. Serpent's Tail. London, England. 216 pages. $14.

Shuttered factories, suicide, incest, brutal winters and alcoholism, all set against the powerful backdrop of Niagara Falls.

"Niagara," a new novel by Mary Woronov, is a grim but compelling account of the lives of one particularly dysfunctional Falls family. It provides a look into the underbelly here, where men drink the cold days away in neighborhood bars for lack of work, go out to the Tuscarora Reservation for cheap gas and cigarettes and take their chances at the casino.

The noir tale is told from the point of view of a 24-year-old woman, alcoholic and quite possibly insane, obsessed by childhood memories -- nightmares might be a better word -- of growing up in the Falls.

Her father is a drunken Vietnam veteran, her mother a former Chinese prostitute he met in Saigon, who now supports the family dealing cards at the casino. Her stepbrother, with whom she has a sexual relationship, is accepted at Harvard, refuses to go, becomes a tour guide on the Maid of the Mist and then is apparently killed while attempting to go over the falls in a barrel.

She marries the captain of the high school football team and the couple try, as so many do, to put Western New York behind them and start a new life in California. But the lure of the falls, its dark secrets and mysteries, are too powerful to overcome. The only way the narrator, who grew up within earshot of the mighty cataracts, can get the sound of the rushing water out of her head is with vodka, and plenty of it.

The plot has more twists and turns than the Devil's Hole Trail. Combine this with the fact that the first-person narration is delivered by a character given to hallucinations and blackouts, and you get a story where it can truly be said the reader doesn't know what's going to happen from one page to the next.

The writing is dark and excellent, perfectly suited to its sometimes surreal subject matter. Woronov captures the despair that has gripped the city for the past 30 years and puts a human face on the industrial decline that left so many victims in its wake.

"It wasn't his fault. None of the dads in our town were working. It was the fault of the dark castles that stood one after another along the banks of the river. They loomed into the sky like the dwelling places of giants who performed unspeakable acts until an evil spell turned off their lights and closed their doors forever. Through the snow and rain they stood deserted behind their cyclone fences bringing unemployment to all the land. If they weren't kept behind fences, the evil inside them would come alive and swallow up the earth. They all had names: Bethlehem Steel, Union Carbide, Carborundum Corp., Occidental Chemical, Hooker Chemical and the three M's, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. They were responsible for the silence that gripped the dinner table throughout my childhood as the dinner of scrambled eggs fell onto my plate and my father's head dropped into his hands."

While civic booster types will be uncomfortable with the book, most of the rest of us who live here will see people and places we know all too well.

The author has herself has lived a life that reads like a novel. Discovered by Andy Warhol in the '60s, Woronov became one of his original "superstars" in films like "Chelsea Girls" and danced onstage with the Velvet Underground, brandishing a whip. She then went to Hollywood, where she appeared in a number of offbeat movies, such as "Eating Raoul," "Night of the Comet" and "The Living End."

She wrote and directed a series of soft-core porn films for cable television, and is a painter of some renown. Woronov is also the author of three previous books: "Wake for the Angels," a book of stories and paintings; an autobiography, "Swimming Underground"; and "Snake," a novel.

Unlike the recent "City of Light" or any of the other fictions that view Western New York through the haze of nostalgia, "Niagara" is a disturbing but altogether fascinating novel that's difficult to put down.

This is serious fiction at its best, and Woronov is an important new voice in American literature.

The book is available from the publisher at www.serpentstail.com and at www.amazon.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 29 2003