New literary delights defy cliches

August 30, 1998|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the sun

For sheer nonsense you can't beat the frequent cry tha "literary fiction is dead." Trendy magazines love telling us that glitzy blockbusters are taking over the book world, and that no publisher wants "mid-list" authors of "serious novels." Yet, month after month, the serious stuff keeps flowing into the book superstores and the cappuccino clientele gobble it up.

In fact, some works that might once have fallen into a "highbrow" limbo have taken off on the wings of the superstores and become best sellers.

Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" and Don DeLillo's "Underworld" are just two recent examples of weighty books with the huge sales normally reserved for novels about mutant dinosaurs on the rampage. In this market even the little literary guys can be contenders.

If sales potential has any relation to actual talent, Pauline Melville's "The Ventriloquist's Tale" (Bloomsbury, 368 pages $23.95) ought to be the next winner to make the leap from classy obscurity to mega-success. But Melville, a native of Guyana who lives in England, has several things working against her: This is her first novel; it's a witty but convoluted story set in a place few people can find on a map (Guyana); and its improbable cast of characters includes several Wapisian Indians, a British woman doing literary research, an incestuous brother and sister, some evil American oilmen, and Evelyn Waugh.

Somehow the whole thing holds together and weaves a wonderful spell. From the first words ("Spite impels me to relate that my biographer ... "), Melville establishes herself as an original voice of great charm and vigor. She is very funny, and also uncommonly wise, about the conflicts between Amerindian and European cultures.

Inspired by Evelyn Waugh's absurd adventures in what used to be British Guiana, she has created a comic love story that beautifully demonstrates the common bonds of humanity underlying even the most diverse cultures.

Louis Begley is a much-praised American novelist who also deserves his chance to break away from the middle pack. His fifth novel, "Mistler's Exit" (Knopf, 206 pages, $22), is crafted with his usual skill and grace; but it will probably not do much to expand his small base of devoted fans. It is a relatively short and unsensational exploration of an old story: a dying man's last efforts to find some pleasure and meaning in his life. Begley adds a few nice twists; but the great appeal of his work is its elegant, understated way of penetrating the mysteries of ordinary sorrows. It's very Jamesian. Unfortunately, that sort of thing usually doesn't lead to a roaring commercial success.

Rupert Thompson is an English author whose amusing satirical style ought to win more American readers. His work is what New York publishers sometimes call, with a quick wave of the hand, "too English." What that really means is that he avoids the Princess Diana/Masterpiece Theater view of England so favored dreamy Anglophiles who rarely leave New York. Instead, with tremendous flair, he gives readers the fish-and-chips soul of the land, taking them on a comic romp through the backstreets of an urban England rarely glimpsed by tourists.

His intimate knowledge of life in modern London is one of the strengths of his new novel "Soft!" (Knopf, 303 pages, $24). In ways large and small he captures the feel of the town, especially as it appears after dark. A typical sentence pays tribute to the gritty poetry of the scene: "When you're lying in bed at night and somebody smashes a bottle in the alley below, it can sound delicate, almost musical, like sleigh-bells."

The big theme of the novel is greed. The title refers to a new soft drink that a large multinational company is determined to make everyone in Britain crave overnight. A trio of young characters becomes entangled in the wild plan to market the beverage and soon finds that it's a ludicrous but deadly game. As the publisher's blurb proclaims, "There's nothing soft about the soft-drink business."

Kim Wozencraft's "The Catch" (Doubleday, 320 pages, $23.95) is the kind of unsubtle thriller that is supposed to appeal to the masses who shun the serious literary books. It has loads of violence, drugs and psychobabble about crime. The author herself is a former narcotics officer and a retired editor of a magazine called Prison Life. She knows the inside story about the real lives of drug smugglers, and this novel is her attempt to show readers how criminals behave behind the scenes.

The one problem is that she can't write. She uses the worst kind of "just-the-facts" style employed in old Dragnet episodes. And after wading through 300 pages of such prose, one begins to think that the real crime at stake in this novel is its murder of the English language.

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