A stripper, mean streets, a ghost

Novels Of January

January 16, 2000|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

If you're a new novelist hungry for attention, it helps to mention embarrassing facts about yourself on the inside of the book jacket. Served time for a major felony? Be sure to include the name of the correctional facility. Suffered addiction or abuse? Don't forget to specify the number of years.

First novelist Tawni O'Dell has so much personal information to confess that she's produced a three-page autobiographical statement to accompany review copies of "Back Roads" (Viking, 338 pages, $24.95), a much-hyped Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Her "particular identity crisis," as she calls it, is certainly unusual: "Being an educated woman living in a stripper's body and saddled with a biker chick's name." Despite having a wealthy CEO father, she says that economic necessity forced her to work as an exotic dancer "jumping out of cakes at stag parties."

The upscale clients whom she "entertained in the finest Chicago hotels" were so disgustingly rude that she finally retired her "silver sequined bikini," married a biochemist and is now a suburban mom with two children. But, as fate would have it, she and her cakes made such an impression on countless doctors, lawyers and businessmen that her face is still recognized on the street: "I've been stalked in my grocery store and chased down a hospital corridor by an anesthesiologist."

I'm not sure why the novelist felt the need to inform readers that her younger sister has three children by different fathers, but all authors are exhibitionists, and Tawni O'Dell seems determined to give her literary career the kind of exotic excitement that evidently continues to inflame hearts among Chicago's healthcare providers. Sure enough, her novel is as racy and as outrageously unconventional as her autobiographical note, and though the plot is a bit fuzzy, "Back Roads" is a very funny book.

The tale of a dysfunctional family in a Pennsylvania coal town, O'Dell's novel gives the reader an amazingly intimate view of lower middle-class life. The hero is an orphaned 19-year-old boy who overcomes a series of family tragedies by the sheer strength of his good nature and old-fashioned pluck. He is a modern Huck Finn whose unsophisticated search for love follows a rocky path that leads from the pages of Victoria's Secret catalogs to the heart of a "sexy, melancholic mother of two." Any similarities between this sulky beauty -- Callie Mercer -- and the author are no doubt purely coincidental.

On the jacket of "Ralph's Party" (Plume Original, 276 pages, $12.95), Lisa Jewell confesses that her new novel was written on a dare after she was sacked from her job in London. She doesn't say what the job was, but the author's biography mentions that she's worked in public relations, "which she hated," and human resources, "which was worse than hell." It's just a guess, but I'd say that her life in the salt mine of human resources prompted her move to the green uplands of fiction. And that's where she belongs, because her novel is both astute and engagingly hip.

Lisa Jewell's cast of characters is dominated by six young people who occupy a house in London, and who are hopelessly unable to mind their own business. They fall in and out of love with each other and behave as though life is nothing more than one long party. What saves the book from becoming merely another vapid urban romance is the author's sharp eye for modern life. With wit and insight, she celebrates the charms of the average woman and satirizes the goddesses of the trendy social world, those "blonde, tall, whippet-chested, cool, arrogant, wine-drinking, label-wearing" beauties whose domination of the media is so oppressive.

You would think that novelists who specialize in crime might be eager to mention their own brushes with the law, but few do. If only George P. Pelecanos could add a few felony arrests to his resume, his "Shame the Devil" (Little, Brown, 300 pages, $24.95) might give him the well-deserved commercial success that his previous seven novels have failed to provide. Like all his crime thrillers, this new novel is a thoroughly convincing story set on the mean streets of Washington, D.C., and is packed with vivid portraits of the petty criminals whose ignorance and rage have fueled the metropolitan crime epidemic.

Alas, Pelecanos -- whom Publishers Weekly once called the "Zola of Washington" -- has the misfortune to be a perfectly respectable writer with a wife, children and a good job managing an independent film company. Because his gritty novels do such a good job of exposing the misery that lies within a mile of the Capitol dome, it's particularly regrettable that his work is not better known. Acquiring a more colorful past may be the only way that veteran novelists like Pelecanos can achieve a breakthrough.

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