Title: "Talk Before Sleep"Author: Elizabeth BergPublisher...

BOOK BRIEFS

May 22, 1994|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK Title: "The Old Moderns: Essays on Literature and Theory" Author: Denis Donoghue Publisher: Knopf Length, price: 288 pages, $27.50 | J. WYNN ROUSUCK Title: "The Old Moderns: Essays on Literature and Theory" Author: Denis Donoghue Publisher: Knopf Length, price: 288 pages, $27.50,LOS ANGELES TIMES Title: "Night Prey" Author: John Sandford Publisher: Putnam Length, price: 336 pages, $22.95

Title: "Talk Before Sleep"

Author: Elizabeth Berg

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 210 pages, $18 Ann Stanley was well into adulthood when she met Ruth Thomas at a party. Before that, Ann says in Elizabeth Berg's moving novel about a close friendship, "I hadn't realized how much I'd been needing to meet someone I might be able to say everything to."

Ann and Ruth's friendship quickly grew as meaningful as their experiences as wives and mothers. That's why, now that Ruth is dying of breast cancer, Ann is by her side, night and day, relishing every moment and knowing that the memory of those moments will soon be all she has left of Ruth.

Several of Ruth's other friends also join the vigil -- a bookstore clerk, a no-nonsense lawyer and a formidable lesbian, who refuses to acknowledge that Ruth is not going to pull through. They form a group whose only link is Ruth.

"Talk Before Sleep" isn't an easy book to read. I frequently found myself putting it down after the warm flashbacks so I could postpone confronting the present-tense chronicle of Ruth's last days. However, Ms. Berg's sensitive writing and thorough understanding of the emotions of true friendship make this sad story one to treasure.

@ Denis Donoghue writes in the final essay in this collection that literary historians are "like war correspondents who are irritable when nothing much is happening"; they like revolution, change, movement, controversy. Dr. Donoghue, a professor of English at New York University, isn't immune to such things, but in "The Old Moderns" he is certainly the voice of established tradition.

His readings are occasionally so close they'll put the reader to sleep, but on the first-rank moderns -- notably Henry James and W. B. Yeats -- he writes compellingly. Of particular interest is the essay on James' "The Golden Bowl," in which Dr. Donoghue uses William James, Henry's philosopher brother, to point up the frustrations caused by the novelist's later work.

William, in a letter to Henry upon reading "The Golden Bowl," wryly asks if his brother can't "sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style? Publish it in my name, I will acknowledge it, and give you half the proceeds." Koop's mom was a prostitute; that's why he killed her. But that was a long time ago. Now he kills women because it's the only way he can relieve his sexual tensions -- and lately, he's had lots of tensions, thanks to Sara Jensen.

Of course Sara doesn't know Koop even exists, doesn't know he's been stalking her, spying on her, that he's been in her apartment while she's asleep. But she soon will.

Investigator Meagan Connell wants to catch this killer before her cancer kills her. That gives her about a month. Yet despite the urgency, Meagan's less than overjoyed to find Lucas Davenport assigned to the case. Frankly, I don't blame her.

In the first five "Prey" novels, John Sandford's main character, Lucas Davenport, went from being something of a jerk to being truly unlikable. In "Night Prey," the character improves slightly, but only because here he's more one-dimensional; there's simply less personality to dislike. Without Davenport to empathize with, and given Connell's dour outlook, Koop becomes the least-offensive major character. Somehow, though, rooting for the killer doesn't seem right.

"Night Prey" does contain some chilling scenes, but the book is filled with people you just don't want to be around.

GREGORY N. KROLCZYK

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