Charles Palliser. Ballantine.153 pages...

THE SENSATIONIST.

August 18, 1991|By LYNN WILLIAMS THUNDER OF EREBUS. Payne Harrison. Crown. 496 pages. $22. | LYNN WILLIAMS THUNDER OF EREBUS. Payne Harrison. Crown. 496 pages. $22.,LOS ANGELES TIMES

THE SENSATIONIST. Charles Palliser. Ballantine.

153 pages. $15. "The Quincunx" was one of the astonishments of 1990. Thick, densely plotted, populated with characters with eccentric names and murky motives, Charles Palliser's first novel was like an undiscovered Dickens. (Albeit a somewhat perverse, even-moodier-than-usual Dickens). It was splendid reading -- a much-underrated virtue -- and was especially refreshing as an antidote to the reigning fashion for slim, elegantly written novels about empty-souled yuppies snorting cocaine and pursuing anonymous sex.

Those of us who admired that novel were intensely curious as to what Mr. Palliser would produce next. We might have expected anything other than what has just been delivered: a slim, elegantly written novel about empty-souled yuppies snorting cocaine and pursuing anonymous sex.

"The Sensationist" is one of those books in which the protagonist's name is only mentioned about twice, and which is full of terse, Pinteresque sex scenes between "he" and "she." The cityscape is simultaneously boring and vaguely menacing, and our priapic anti-hero David, although he seems to be some kind of financier, lives in a semi-slum apartment that is slowly and all too metaphorically disintegrating. The plot turns on David's involvement with an emotionally disturbed artist, and meanders along, in its beautifully crafted, soporific way, toward predictable tragedy.

Depressing. Not only for the obvious reasons, but because one of our most interesting new literary voices has seen fit to become just another chronicler of the moral vacuity of the modern middle class -- public anomie No. 1.

Payne Harrison's first novel, "Storming Intrepid," was a stunning mix of technology, solid characters, suspense and politics. "Intrepid" took place on board a space shuttle; in "Thunder of Erebus," Mr. Harrison has chosen a very different setting -- Antarctica. But the other high-powered elements are in place and the result is as successful.

Remote Antarctica might be about the only place in the world that is not at the mercy of political winds. A joint U.S.-Soviet science expedition stumbles on a new element, rubidium 96, which is so powerful and readily adaptable that it will change every aspect of war. Both countries begin making plans to gain control of the element.

"Thunder of Erebus" traces the build-up of tensions as politicians fail to come to an accommodation. The result is an all-out conflagration played out in Antarctica. Mr. Harrison shows an unusual grasp of technology and a keen understanding of the political ramifications. While it may be a bit long, "Thunder of Erebus" is a complex and believable cautionary tale.

BOB BAYLUS

BOYS WILL BE BOYS: BREAKING THE LINK BETWEEN MASCULINITY AND VIOLENCE. Myriam Miedzian. Doubleday.

337 pages. $20.

This book's title is likely to remind men of the dismissive comment that Mom made years ago, the one that sent them tumbling from the jungles of Africa, where they were Tarzan, by reminding them that they were really just little boys playing in the back yard.

Indeed, they would be wise to brace themselves before reading this author, a philosopher and social worker, for she fashions a most persuasive case against the social institutions that raised them to be "men": History courses that dutifully chronicle battles without teaching non-violent conflict resolution, boys' aisles at toy stores (which look "more like military arsenals") and coaches who preach winning at any cost instead of fostering teamwork.

"Boys Will Be Boys" is a powerful book, offering many insights into why America's crime rates lead the industrialized world.

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