Evil, pop culture, film noir, England

Novels Of Summer

May 30, 1999|By Speer Morgan | Speer Morgan,Special to the Sun

With summer upon us, publishers are offering a new round of fiction. Among the more interesting novels is "Hadrian's Walls" by Robert Draper (Knopf, 336 pages, $23). It concerns the Texas criminal system, centering on Shepherdsville, home of a state prison as well as much of the prison bureaucracy.

Protagonist Hadrian, at 15 murdered someone in self-defense. After 20 years in prison, he escaped. In this town where the jailers and the jailed are all one big dysfunctional family, Hadrian's friend Sonny, warden and head hancho of the system, talked the governor into pardoning him.

Calling Hadrian back to Shepherdsville, Sonny reveals that he wants his old friend to do him a little favor: eliminate the scoundrel who is threatening to privatize the prisons and deprive Sonny of his empire. Hadrian discovers ever deepening layers of Sonny's corruption and must decide between friendship and justice.

Draper alternates between past and present, depicting Hadrian's youthful love affair, his father and his time in the joint. Hadrian himself is something of the classic victim hero, too good to believe at times, and the book's ending is strangely soft. But the crooked Sonny is a virtuoso of intrigue, a J.R. figure you almost want to root for, and Shepherdsville's rivalries, gossip and rank corruption are masterfully conveyed.

Wow. Kurt Anderson's "Turn of the Century: A Novel" (Random House, $24.95) is one of the cleverest things I've read in ages. Its 677 pages of hyperkinetic pop cultural commentary, like a hefty box of candy, gave me a headache, but I couldn't stop eating. Tom Wolfe times 10 on Ecstasy.

The protagonists are married -- George, a producer of television docudramas, and Lizzie, owner of a software company -- but their story is less important than the milieus of technology, television and stock trading, which are painted in great detail. The omniscient narrator tosses out offhanded judgments about these worlds.

Samples: There are "two Hollywood types: Inscrutable Hard Ass and Merry Chatterer"; a group of Hollywood people at a party include "Seven Figure Scruffs" and "chubby sitcom creators"; at another gathering, one unfortunate contingent is casually dismissed as "nobodies" and that's all we hear of them.

Like Tom Wolfe, Anderson packs his book with information. Whole chapters are devoted to minutely described stock trading or to Lizzie and George's daily financial picture. There are some great moments of reflection about such things as the irrelevance of contemporary technology to human needs, but one somehow doesn't believe them.

The book systematically panders to hot topics, and by its snideness encourages readers to feel both hip and morally superior. I had the feeling by page 500 or so that I was at a party listening to a bright guy who couldn't stop trying to impress me. No question, though: "Turn of the Century" is rollicking, witty and full of nasty gossip.

Thomas Wiseman's "Genius Jack" (Marion Boyars Publishers, 442 pages, $29.95) portray's the career of a moviemaker. Jack Strawley, who has a talent for finding and relying on strong women, becomes an enfant terrible of the industry. Specializing in film noir, he wheels and deals as brutally as a gangster, beating up on actresses to force performances out of them and doing whatever he deems necessary to get the job done.

At 29, Jack achieves his triumph at Cannes, but his life grows increasingly sad -- plagued by alcohol, emphysema and his own cruelty. As he becomes a classic drunken, predatory egotist, his story becomes uncomfortably like a generic case study. Yet there is lore on almost every page for the flick addict, and movie buffs will enjoy this serious look at the harsh side of the world of filmmaking.

The narrator in John Berger's quirky new novel "King: A Street Story" (Pantheon Books, 185 pages, $20) is a talking dog who tells the stories of two old homeless people to whom he is devoted. King is a delightful dog and something of a philosopher. He visits a hermit crab for conversation, flirts with a squirrel and wonders about god. Mostly his story is about devotion -- his own to his poor masters and theirs to each other.

Interestingly, though, this is not a "heart-warming," sentimental tale. King's friends are in bad shape, yet he thinks of their happier past and their love. "King" delights in the power of the imagination to transform small enjoyments into a full life.

Julian Barnes' "England, England" (Alfred A. Knopf, 273 pages, $23) concerns an attempt to build a "replica" of England on the Isle of Wight. This massive project, funded by a media plutocrat, is directed in part by hard-driving executive Martha Cochrane. Barnes narrates Martha's life story realistically and touchingly when dealing with her childhood and her struggles with men.

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