Vampires, endless verse, good stuff Novels for October

October 04, 1998|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

In most businesses, marketing decisions are guided by relatively sane assumptions. This is not the case in the publishing industry, which must cater to groups obsessed by such things as vampires, reincarnated cat people, mutant spacemen, serial killers and women who run with wolves.

While the ordinary executive seeks new markets for the latest satellite dish or sport utility vehicle, the hotshot publisher must fret over the sales campaign for a new book about Lucifer in love or body snatchers from Old Vienna.

I do not envy the grown persons who must drum up business for Anne Rice's latest piece of gibberish, "The Vampire Armand" (Knopf, 388 pages, $26.95). Imagine having to keep a straight face while you describe the book to your sales reps.

I suppose you take a cheerful tone and say, "Well, gang, Anne's given us another great installment of her Vampire Chronicles. This time we follow our favorite bloodsuckers on a madcap joy ride through history, from medieval Russia to modern New Orleans. I know it sounds like all her other books, but we don't want to disappoint all those fans who seem to enjoy reading the same thing over and over again."

I would pay good money to be a fly on the wall at the sales conference for the new blockbuster from Steven Pressfield, "Gates of Fire" (Doubleday, 352 pages, $23.95). Without making anything up, you could give an amusing pitch for this amazingly bad book: "That's right, kids, our new author lives in Malibu, California, and has previously optioned a mystical golf novel to Robert Redford. The big news now is that George Clooney has acquired the movie rights to "Gates of Fire," which we're calling "an epic novel of the Battle of Thermopylae.' You know, it's about Spartan warriors raping and killing their way through ancient Greece. Won't Clooney look great in a tunic?"

In this silly season, even some literary heavyweights are putting out products that another industry might instantly reject as hopelessly defective. W.S. Merwin is a respected and sensitive writer who has been producing decent poems for 40 years. But what would make any publisher want Merwin's "The Folding Cliffs" (Knopf, 333 pages, $25), a massive verse narrative about leprosy in 19th-century Hawaii? I can't imagine how anyone could be expected to read this exercise in pure folly, nor how any big publishing house could rouse its troops to sell a story with lines such as these:

Ko'olau and Kaleimanu put the roof on the new house

so that Ko'olau and Pi'ilani could move over there

but when Ko'olau was away at Waiawa,

Pi'ilani went over to spend the day with her mother

Merwin's book goes on in this way for hundreds of mind-numbing pages.

It makes you wonder whether anybody at the distinguished house of Knopf bothered to read the thing before shipping it out. Perhaps a good method of protecting the public from works like this is to require the publisher to issue a full audio version recorded by the author's editor. If the editor managed to read the whole thing out loud without resigning or committing suicide, the book would be published in due course.

But do not despair. Some books are so awful that they beg to be read and savored. Nanci Kincaid's "Balls" (Algonquin, 408 pages, $21.95) is a wonderfully sleazy tale about an Alabama college football coach whose life is a perpetual three-ring circus.

The story is seen through the eyes of various females who surround the coach - his wife, mother, daughter, etc. - but the language draws heavily from the crudest depths of the male locker room. A former homecoming queen who has been married to two football coaches, Nanci Kincaid has spent so much time around jocks that she knows exactly how to mimic their mindless dialogues.

The only problem is that the faithful womenfolk must stand on the sidelines and watch the jock dramas unfold. They aren't allowed on this great playing field of life because they don't have ... well, the title says it all.

But let the ex-homecoming queen sum up the situation in a little more detail: "It wasn't just a stupid ball they held in their hands, but the whole world being tossed about from man to man - like a game of keep away. From me."

If you want a book by an actual adult whom you could read aloud without fatigue or shame, two novels stand out this month. The first is William Boyd's "Armadillo" (Knopf, 352 pages, $24). A British author whose reputation is well established in Europe, Boyd has yet to enjoy widespread success in this country.

If you have not looked at his work before, the witty and exquisitely complicated "Armadillo" will be a pleasant surprise. He has a rare talent for combining realistic detail with eccentric - even magical - characters whose lives inhabit the odd margins of the past and present.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.