ALMOST PERFECTAlice AdamsKnopf244 pages, $23Stella Blake...

BOOK BRIEFS

July 18, 1993|By JEAN MARBELLA THE LAST MAN OUT Donald Honig Dutton 230 pages, $19 | JEAN MARBELLA THE LAST MAN OUT Donald Honig Dutton 230 pages, $19,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALMOST PERFECT

Alice Adams

Knopf

244 pages, $23

Stella Blake is a talented writer with a storied past. Richard Fallon is a handsome, brilliant artist. Their world is filled with ex-spouses, current friends, future lovers and other hangers-on, people with names like Margot Carlisle and Claudia Farnsworth and Liam O'Gara and . . .

Is this literature or the cast of some "Dynasty"/"Dallas" clone?

In Alice Adams' latest novel, characters live in Presidio-view apartments in San Francisco, pull pink dresses from Oaxaca, Mexico, out of closets and break up while sitting in "seats, good ones" at the Santa Fe opera.

Richard falls into bed with just about everyone who a) interviews, b) hires or c) otherwise lays eyes on him. Stella is the daughter of a famous writer, and former lover (while in her teens) of a famous director who meets Richard when she does a).

Their "almost perfect" coupling ends up unraveling. She goes from mousy to successful; he goes from brilliant to mad. But sometimes it's hard to care about someone so full of his own perfection (Richard) and someone who is either tragic or merely whiny (Stella).

Still, like those old prime-time soaps -- and the novel, incidentally, is set in the very 1980s that those shows celebrated -- there's something perversely engaging about the whole pretty thing. Even though he is a top-notch prospect for the 1946 Brooklyn Dodgers, Harvey Tippin is in a lot of trouble. The rookie is the No. 1 suspect in the brutal murders of young society heiress Gloria Manley and her maid. The police have sweated out a very questionable confession from the naive ballplayer. The Dodgers have written him off, and even Harvey's fundamentalist parents will have nothing to do with him.

While the case is closed to everyone else, baseball reporter Joe Tinker feels that justice has not been served. His probe uncovers a sordid society scandal and a woman who played a high-stakes game that led to murder. The culprit was the last man out of Gloria's house.

"The Last Man Out" is Donald Honig's second Joe Tinkemystery, following the very ambitious "Plot to Kill Jackie Robinson." While this is not nearly as audacious, it is a strong story that nicely re-creates post-World War II New York. Joe Tinker is a worthy sleuth who is strengthened by an interesting supporting cast, and Mr. Honig plays fair with the reader.

BOB BAYLUS

GIRL, INTERRUPTED

Susanna Kaysen

Turtle Bay/Random House

169 pages, $17

After a too-brief session with a doctor she was seeing for the first time, 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen found herself heading for McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility whose famous patient roster has included James Taylor and Sylvia Plath. Ms. Kaysen spent two years there -- and now, 26 years later, has written a bitter, funny, insightful memoir.

She was categorized as a "borderline personality," a diagnosis she was not to know about until she read her medical file 25 years later, a diagnosis she aptly describes: "It's accurate but it isn't profound." Ms. Kaysen might have been suffering from nothing more than the standard excesses experienced by the sensitive teen-ager, especially girls, but the eager, regimented world of medicine deemed her worthy of medication and supervision.

Her therapist told her she seemed sad, or puzzled. "Of course I was sad and puzzled," she writes. "I was 18, it was spring, and I was behind bars." A minimalist relative of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Ms. Kaysen's spare, elegant book raises angry questions about just who's crazy, and who's in charge of figuring it out.

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