Brilliance, dreck, tyranny, fidelity

Novels of January

January 12, 2003|By Michael Shelden | By Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

Rewriting Oscar Wilde for modern audiences may not seem promising, but British novelist Will Self does a brilliant job of it in Dorian (Grove Press, 288 pages, $24). The Victorian setting of Wilde's classic tale The Picture of Dorian Gray is brought forward to the dawn of the AIDS epidemic in 1981, and the action is inevitably more graphic, and more sordid, than that of the original story.

At first, this hypersexed update seems too modern, with its arch references to the "detritus of druggery and buggery," and its cast of nihilistic hedonists and pseudo artists who roam London in a semi-comatose state. But Will Self -- a wunderkind of the British literary scene -- writes with such wit and intelligence that he gives his story a satiric edge worthy of Wilde himself.

He is devastatingly funny about the upper classes, who are portrayed as a decadent chorus for the doomed Princess Diana and her jug-eared prince.

Self's Lady Victoria Wooton is the anti-Diana whose father -- the Duke of This and That -- jokingly refers to his fiendishly unattractive child as "Batface."

Like Wilde, Self has a real talent for turning a phrase. A good-looking young man walks with an "epicene swish," and the newly armed British cops wear their bulletproof vests "like the ornate breastplate of modern primitives."

The brilliance of Dorian is in sharp contrast to the mind-numbing dullness of a new novel by a familiar face from '80s London -- the notorious ex-politician Jeffrey Archer, who continues producing potboilers from his new address: England's Hollesley Bay prison.

Convicted of perjury two years ago, Archer has just signed a multimillion dollar deal to write fiction directed at American readers. The first work is called Sons of Fortune (St. Martin's Press, 400 pages, $27.95) and is set in Connecticut. It follows the lives of two brothers separated at birth who rise to prominence in politics and business in modern-day Hartford.

Why anyone would want to read a Connecticut epic written by an imprisoned British author is beyond me, especially when the writer's grasp of American culture is as weak as Archer's. At one point, he describes a professor at the state university lecturing on The Grapes of Wrath by William Faulkner! And here's a sample of Lord Archer's prose, which is taken from a conversation between one of his female characters and the late Spiro Agnew:

"My father is a politician."

"Is that right?" said Agnew.

"No, left, sir," she replied with a smile, "he's the majority leader in the Connecticut state senate."

For a refreshing dose of realism, the best bet this month is Richard Price's Samaritan (Knopf, 400 pages, $25). The author of Clockers and other novels set in drug-infested urban jungles, Price knows his mean streets and understands the criminals who haunt them.

His new novel is set in a New Jersey town mired in poverty and plagued by gangs. Ray Mitchell -- the Samaritan of the title -- grew up in the town, made good as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and has now returned to teach at the local high school for free. He wants to save kids from a life of crime and give them the chance to lead a worthy life like his.

Of course, his good deeds must not go unpunished and his idealism must be put to a severe test. In many ways the story is predictable, but Price tells it with such a clear eye for detail that nothing seems artificial or implausible. His tough guys sound like the real thing, and his good guys aren't saints.

The mean streets of Lisbon, Portugal, provide the setting for Antonio Lobo Antunes' The Inquisitors' Manual (Grove Press, 356 pages, $25), which is a vivid exploration of life under one of the worst dictators of the last century, Antonio Salazar. Seen through the eyes of several representative characters who have survived the dictator's fall, the story shows how much damage tyranny can do on a personal level. Both the collaborators and their victims suffer, and no one wins.

The central character is a former minister in Salazar's Cabinet. He ponders the meaning of his government service from a nursing home, where he now lives in disgrace in the aftermath of reform. Disabled by a stroke, the once powerful minister must confront the failures of his past and the pitiful conditions of the present. Once in control of thousands, he can now barely control his bodily functions. "Time to go wee-wee," his nurses must remind him.

A more attractive portrait of political power can be found in Ellen Feldman's Lucy (W.W. Norton, 288 pages, $24.95), a novel about the love affair between Franklin Roosevelt and his wife's social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Feldman admires Lucy's unselfish devotion to FDR, and provides a very sympathetic account of the romance. As a result, Eleanor Roosevelt is made to seem rather unattractive and much too earnest, which may be closer to the truth than any purely factual history could show.

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