Some August novels: dog days come alive

August 11, 1996|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The dog days of August spawn more than the usual thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. The richest trove of fiction waits for September and October. Among the many predictable too-small novels this month, avoid "The Other Family" (Random House, 207 pages $21) by Jacqueline Carey, a story with one more dysfunctional family motif.

Yet if a publisher has signed up a quirky novel, one that defies all known fictional categories, why not publish it in August? For August is also a month for daring first novels, novels by the not-yet-known, small novels, linguistically experimental novels.

August publication may in fact be choice. Even as book pages have dieted to slenderness, there remains review space to be had for the asking. The epitome of the late-summer long-shot is "Biggest Elvis," by P. F. Kluge (Viking, 341 pages, $22.95) a novel set in the Philippines and featuring three Elvis Presley impersonators, the pink-cheeked young rocker, the sullen mature star of B movies, and the vulgarly profligate Las Vegas parody of his earlier self. Elvis aficionados should tune in.

There are on this August's lists fresh young voices awaiting discovery. Well worth consideration is Ernest Hill's "Satisfied With Nothin' " (Simon and Schuster, 304 pages, $22). Before a major publisher rescued him, Hill sold 10,000 copies in a self-published edition. Hill's young hero is Jamie Ray Griffin, coming of age in an ugly town in rural Louisiana white hot and ugly with racism 15 years after the desegregation of schools was to begin. Jamie, like many urban youth, hopes to transcend the hopelessness of his life through sports, here football.

Despite his having witnessed the castration and lynching of his cousin, he almost succeeds. Hill has created a long-awaited incarnation of Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas, and "Satisfied With Nothin' " is a deeply felt work.

I offer two more hearty recommendations. Paula Sharp, who practices criminal law, brings to "Crows Over A Wheatfield" (Hyperion, 448 pages, $22.95) an astute legal mind. Her themes include child abuse, custody machinations and revolutionary underground politics. Forcefully, Sharp indicts a ponderous legal system peopled by arbitrary and capricious judges who callously desert the innocent. There's much passionate writing here.

Coincidentally, another fine novel is also the work of an amateur novelist, this time a doctor. In Jeannie Brewer's "A Crack in Forever" (Simon and Schuster, 295 pages, $22), a perfect relationship shatters when the young man is discovered to have AIDS.

Just as Sharp knows courtrooms well, so Brewer offers a compelling view of the AIDS medical subculture. Billed as a latter-day "Love Story," less awkward if also less ambitious than "Crows Over A Wheatfield," "A Crack in Forever" is a good read.

For the flavor of its South African setting, try "Childish Things" by Marita van der Vyver (Dutton, 244 pages, $22.95). In a story set against the struggles in Angola and South Africa before the release of Nelson Mandela, van der Vyver in her second novel reveals how social upheaval intervenes in the search for personal happiness.

Her plot highlights how we are simultaneously citizens, lovers, .. sisters, friends, daughters - and aunts. Van der Vyver is no Nadine Gordimer, but her story of adolescent turmoil amid the moral chaos of a transitional moment in South Africa's history may appeal to young readers.

The most extraordinary novel of August, however, must be Chuck Palahniuk's "Fight Club" (W. W. Norton, 192 pages, $21), a startlingly original first effort. At the millennium, with life having lost all meaning, organized social violence becomes a relief. "I wanted the whole world to hit bottom," says the narrator, who creates Fighting Clubs in which men can at least leave the miseries of this planet emblazoned with scars.

Palahniuk brilliantly introduces us to people who have fallen off the circumference of civilization, a generation for whom "the great depression is our lives." So evolves Project Mayhem in a novel that becomes a hymn to accelerated entropy as the twisted narrator reveals his aim: "to blast the world free of history."

Yet how else is one to cope with a world in which the person you sit next to on an airplane becomes a "single-use friend" and high-rise condos are "filing cabinet[s] for widows and young professionals." Palahniuk unflinchingly sounds the voice of our epoch, and, no, it is not pretty.

"Fight Club" is far more than an August throwaway and bravo to W. W. Norton for having the courage to publish it.

Joan Mellen teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia. The most recent of her 13 books, "Hellman and Hammett," was published this summer by HarperCollins.

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