Six June novels: the good, the awful

June 16, 1996|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If he had taken more than a passing interest in literary matters, that great commercial vulgarian Sam Goldwyn might have asked, "Why should people go out and buy bad novels when they can stay home and watch bad television for nothing?"

Old Sam could not have imagined how many bad diversions would compete for our attention in the digital age, but even in his day the boys with the big money had dismissed novels as little more than fodder for screen "treatments." Yet whole truckloads of novels keep rolling into the multimedia centers that used to be called bookstores, and a lot of bad books are taken home to serve as nightcaps after an evening of bad television or bad Net surfing.

Obviously, we have a weakness for mindless entertainment. If that were not the case, pro wrestling would have died with Gorgeous George. But readers of book reviews are discriminating, highly intelligent and uncommonly attractive human beings who are looking for the good stuff, and will settle for nothing else. So take this June buying guide to your nearest multimedia center and be an informed consumer.

First, a warning to avoid three books of exceptional silliness.

Ray Petersen's "Cowkind" (A Wyatt Book for St. Martins Press. 193 pages. $21.95.) is a politically correct version of Mr. Ed for the anxious Ninties. Petersen's animals are not content to make small talk; they want to discuss politics, economics, and psychology. One prominent member of the cast is Bossy the cow, "whose tender affection for Farmer Bob is unrequited." When she is carefully coaxed toward the milking machine, Bossy is overcome with emotion. "He understands," Bossy rejoices. "He appreciates me."

In "The Intruder" (Simon & Schuster. 396 pages. $23) Peter Blauner has written a thriller for readers who think "See Spot run" is complex prose. As Blauner might describe his book: "Manhattan. Big attorney. His wife. Their kid. Family's relationship with homeless man who turns on them. Sort of like "Cape Fear" and "Fatal Attraction." Movie rights sold for millions." People who like this style will certainly be impressed by the author's philosophical speculations: "God is not fair. God is not unfair. God just is." Heavy.

Someone using the name Sapphire has written "Push" (Knopf. 177 pages. $20) for hip dudes and chicks who, like, hate all those old books by dead guys and want something, like, REAL. So Precious Jones, young and pregnant, tells her story of growing up in Harlem and speaks entirely in the authentic voice of the streets, using her own rules of spelling "ninfe" [ninth], "maff" [math] and "fahver" [father]. But every so often this "authentic" voice forgets to be cool and writes such conventional words as "eleventh," "whether" and "aptitude." After a few pages, it is painfully embarrassing to follow Sapphire's botched efforts to "dumb-down" her heroine: "I don't know what an alternative is but I feel I want to know."

Now, the good stuff.

"Snakebite Sonnet" (Little, Brown. 304 pages. $22.95), by Max Phillips, is a brilliant first novel about the pleasures and pains of romance. Combining lyrical grace with a wry wit, Phillips traces a young man's emotional growth from lovesick adolescent to mature husband and father. It is an old story, but Phillips gives it new life through the magic of his poetic prose and the sharpness of his comic vision. He can be hilariously funny on the subject of sexual ignorance among young males. For example, their bewildered response to the developing female breast: "We squeezed our own bony chests and tried to think things through."

"The Frequency of Souls" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 244 pages. $23), by Mary Kay Zuravleff, is another first-rate first novel. It is the engaging tale of two eccentric characters lost in the corporate bowels of a firm that makes refrigerators. Seemingly tamed by the oppressive forces of domestic and corporate life, George the electrical engineer is saved from a dreary existence by a new office partner, a "gangly girl scientist" named Niagara, who charms him with her strange appearance and even stranger ideas. And, try as he may, he cannot resist her invitation to communicate with the dead through a mysterious "frequency of souls." Sexy and wonderfully flaky, Niagara is an unforgettable character who will win readers' hearts as easily as she wins George's.

"Worst Fears" (Atlantic Monthly Press. 208 pages. $21), by Fay Weldon, is the highly polished work of an old pro. This is the British novelist's 21st novel, and like all her best work, it is full of wicked wit and astute social observations - this time on the subject of adultery. She is expert at describing over-adorned women who, "with every movement ... jangled," or the English fondness for disguising wealth behind shabby genteel appearances: "Only the rich and knowledgeable could tell wealth from poverty."

With three such delightful novels waiting to be enjoyed, why should anyone waste time watching summer reruns?

Michael Shelden is the author of three biographies and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and the New Yorker.

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