An intriguing, but far from cute, 'Baby'

cabalistic obsession

warlord reality TV

New Fiction

February 20, 2005|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun

Nice Big American Baby

By Judy Budnitz. Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $23.

It's Judy Budnitz' world, and we are all just visitors. Or so it seems when reading the fiction of this provocative writer, whose work may remind one a bit of Aimee Bender here, a touch of George Saunders there, but is, in the end, entirely original. Budnitz' new story collection serves up the same potent stew of surrealism, comedy and horror that she concocted in her first collection, Flying Leap, and in a novel, If I Told You Once.

The new book is, if anything, even more challenging than Budnitz' previous work, brimming with graphic images that are plainly intended to disturb. In "Where We Come From," a pregnant woman tries repeatedly to cross an unnamed border into the U.S., resolving not to give birth until she succeeds. Magically, she does hold off, and years later, after finally arriving here, she produces a "nice big American baby." "Sales" describes how a malicious family ensnares traveling salesmen and keeps them in a backyard pen. In "The Kindest Cut," an army surgeon in an anonymous war becomes obsessed with amputation, harvesting and planting severed arms and legs in a vast field of waving limbs. Only the strong of stomach ought to apply here. But for those dauntless readers, the rewards are considerable.

The Seventh Beggar

By Pearl Abraham. Riverhead, 368 pages, $25.95.

Abraham's third novel continues to explore the themes of religious orthodoxy and apostasy that she raised in The Romance Reader and Giving Up America. Joel Jakob is a brilliant teenage scholar from a distinguished Hasidic family in Monsey, N.Y., who becomes fascinated with the work of Nachman of Bratslav, an early 19th-century cabalist and storyteller whose cult following remains strong today. Despite the disapproval of his parents, teachers and sensible sister Ada, Joel carries his obsession with Nachman to feverish and finally lethal heights, when a freak accident kills him during a rapturous prayer session. Twenty years later, Ada's son JakobJoel takes the legacy of his dead uncle's knowledge quest in a different direction when, as a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he helps to create a female golem in the form of a robot named Cog. Abraham's ambitious book is about the nature of creation itself, and if her own creative sojourns through time don't hang satisfyingly together here, they are each worthy enterprises nonetheless.

The Manhattan Beach Project

By Peter Lefcourt. Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $23.

Lefcourt's novels are excruciatingly funny unless you happen to work in show business, in which case they are blood-curdling documentaries likely to induce diarrhea and night sweats. His latest effort reintroduces Charlie Berns, the hapless producer from his novel The Deal, who despite having won an Academy Award four years ago is flat broke, living in his nephew's pool house and on the run from his punctilious Vietnamese debt collector. Enter trouble, in the form of an unsavory ex-CIA agent who coaxes Charlie into a last-ditch project: a reality show set in the wilds of Uzbekistan about a vengeance-bent warlord and his family ("think The Osbournes meets The Sopranos") that becomes, in the improbable logic of television, a runaway ratings smash.

What makes Lefcourt's book so successful is his light-handed way of making every crass, craven figure here -- network execs, agents, Uzbek noodle-shop owners, Georgian thugs -- exquisitely desperate, which grants a poignant egalitarianism to each on-the-take character in this hilariously Hobbesian universe. Readers will be so busy laughing they might not even mind that they've just witnessed the end of civilization as we know it.

The Chrysanthemum Palace

By Bruce Wagner. Simon & Schuster, 224 pages, $21.

Wagner's latest Hollywood novel -- his fifth -- aspires to the same brio as Lefcourt's, but comes up short. His protagonists are three actors who all suffer the burden of famous parents: the narrator, Bertie Krohn, has a father who created a legendary Star Trek-like TV show, while his friends Clea Fremantle and Thad Michelet are the children, respectively, of an iconic film-star beauty and a literary lion. These three whine and moan their way through Wagner's inert melodrama, which is helped neither by pretentious quotations from the Italian poet Leopardi nor by constant coy appeals to the reader's patience. In the end, after having been incessantly told but rarely shown that these people are beautiful, brilliant and doomed, the reader has been effectively drained not only of patience but also of sympathy.

Book Doctor

By Esther Cohen. Counterpoint, 304 pages, $23

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