SHORT LIST.Jim Lehrer.Putnam.` 224 pages. $19.95.Jim...

BOOK BRIEFS

February 09, 1992|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK AMERICA IN 1492. Edited by Alvin M. Josephy Jr. Knopf. 368 pages. $35. | J. WYNN ROUSUCK AMERICA IN 1492. Edited by Alvin M. Josephy Jr. Knopf. 368 pages. $35.,LOS ANGELES TIMES THE LAST GOOD GERMAN. Bill Granger. Warner. ` 214 pages. $18.95.

SHORT LIST.

Jim Lehrer.

Putnam.

` 224 pages. $19.95.

Jim Lehrer wrote four previous novels chronicling the adventures of a fictitious lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, but this time he's hit the topicality jackpot.

In "Short List," the Second Man of the Sooner State -- aka the One-Eyed Mack -- suddenly finds himself a contender for the vice presidential slot on the Democratic ticket. Before you can say "Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton," Mack is enmeshed in scandal, replete with the requisite probing reporters.

Mr. Lehrer -- co-anchor of PBS' "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" -- serves up a hoot of a satire on his own profession. The high point comes when Mack is coached by a hot-shot political consultant whose advice for handling press conferences includes: "Be self-deprecating . . . Get hot at least once. I mean angry . . . But do not cry . . . If possible, pick a question from the New York Times person to praise . . . Try not to tell a lie. . . ." Although some of this is more entertaining than the plot, in the end you still wish you could vote for the One-Eyed Mack.

@ It is shocking, as Alvin Josephy Jr. notes in the introduction to this volume, that a respected history textbook could state as recently as 1987 that while civilizations evolved around the globe, "the Americas stood empty of mankind and his works." In fact, by the time Columbus arrived in 1492 the two continents were settled by perhaps 2,000 different cultures, ranging from Inuit hunting peoples in the Arctic to the shell-fishing Yahgan in the southernmost reaches of Tierra del Fuego, from the bean-growing Hidatsas of the upper Missouri to the Southwest's stable Navajo, from the Warrau "boat people" of the Orinoco delta to the ritually head-hunting Mundurucu near the Amazon basin.

These are just a handful of the native cultures encountered in this book, which is so packed with information that the head spins, reaching critical overload a hundred pages in. Nearly a score of academics have contributed essays, and although they pass on a vast number of interesting facts -- every water-dependent tribe, it seems, had a different way of making its canoes -- reading "America in 1492" too often becomes a grueling, monotonous task. Forced to cover a lot of ground in just a few pages, many of the contributors only skim surfaces, leaving the reader wanting more -- a sense only accentuated by the book's most engrossing chapter, in which anthropologist Alan Kolata provides a detailed discussion of the Incas. As the political alliances of the last 50 years collapse, the espionage world has been turned upside down. Kurt Heinemann, an East German agent, has found himself not only a man without a country but also an espionage agent without a cause. When he learns about an extraordinary Japanese code machine, he offers his services to a shadowy U.S. organization known only as R Section to acquire the machine. But Heinemann's game is to use the machine to rebuild his East German spy apparatus.

Devereaux (code name: November) is blackmailed out of retirement by the head of R Section to run a similar operation to steal the machine. Devereaux also has a 15-year-old score to settle with Heinemann. The theory is that between the two men, R Section will wind up with the machine regardless of the outcome between Devereaux and Heinemann.

"The Last Good German" is the 12th November Man novel, and may be one of the best. Bill Granger eschews the flat characters and comic-book violence that has marked several other novels. The characters are complex and the plot is an unusual wheels-within-wheels puzzle.

BOB BAYLUS

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