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By Steve Allen, Scott Rogerson and Noah Masterson

APRIL 5, 1999: 

Easy Money by Jenny Siler (Henry Holt, cloth, $24)

Red hot and rolling, nothing comes easy for Allie Kerry, especially the money, as she races her blue '69 Mustang cross country from Seattle to Key West in Jenny Siler's excellent first novel, Easy Money.

Siler's artful and edgy prose, fleshy characterizations and tightly-wound plot gain her instant access to the male-dominated pantheon of American mystery writers. Her heroine, Allie Kerry, goes against the grain of convention and offers a welcome new perspective on the Chili Palmerized genre of tough guys.

Not to be fooled, Allie Kerry is as street-smart and tough as they come. She is a free-lance courier for a Miami shyster and former lover named Joey. She makes her deliveries without asking questions and carries a gun, sometimes three, yet still fears most of all the normal life she has never had.

"Of all the shit I have to deal with when I'm working--bungled connections, bad packages, cops--the most difficult thing for me is the American family."

Allie Kerry lost her mother and was brought up by a doting, drug-smuggling father, a Vietnam vet who carried home a dark secret that comes back to haunt them both 30 years later. He is found with a bullet in his head, and Allie suddenly finds herself battling the vicious ghosts of her father's past.

It is the news of her father's death, and a job for Joey along the way, that puts Allie on a long road home. But the pickup in a Bremerton pool hall goes bad and, moments after her contact slips a computer disk in her pocket, she finds him dead on the men's room floor. What was supposed to be easy--"easy money"--turns into a cross-country chase for her life. Dead bodies litter her trail from Seattle to Key West and pile up at home in an incredibly cinematic and realistic shoot-out with the bad guys.

Jenny Siler's thriller is a triumphant debut. Her writing is solid. She draws on a colorful imagination and makes the most of her considerable talent to shape a tight story. She knows the geography between Seattle and South Florida like a Teamster, and covers Nixon's secret war in Cambodia with the insight of a vet.

Easy Money refuses to drag. Siler delivers original characters, authentic themes and pulsating suspense. Her star has nowhere to go but up. (SR)

Caricature by Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics, cloth, $29.95)

Daniel Clowes is nearly unrivaled in the world of independent comics. Sure, there's Peter Bagge's recently discontinued Hate comics--which probably sell more copies--and Clowes' protégé Adrian Tomine, the prodigious penner of Optic Nerve. But for years, the praises of Clowes and his Eightball comics have been most loudly sung by the mainstream press and the underground fans--and with good reason. He is a meticulous artist, a perfectionist and a brilliant observer of human nature.

"Caricature," the title story in this collection, follows the path of Mal Rosen, a 39-year-old divorced caricaturist, who travels across the country, selling his work at county fairs. He is a simple, morose man, who sometimes imagines himself having sex with his subjects. Theda, a saucy 22-year-old with a black eye, sits before him and lavishes him with compliments. The two become briefly involved before Theda slips away and Mal moves on to the next town. Not only do we catch a rare glimpse into the life of a caricaturist (the trick is to make the drawing humorously flattering, not cruel), but in the character of Theda, Clowes, once again, captures perfectly the deadpan irony so many young women use to communicate these days. Clowes' last collection, Ghost World, is all about such young women, and is being made into a movie by Crumb director Terry Zwigoff.

"MCMLXVI" starts off with the lead character stating: "I'm obsessed with the year 1966. For one thing, that's the year I was born, but also I think it represents the peak of American culture." What follows is a perfect stab at popular culture--its false nostalgia and post-modern inability to generate new ideas. Importantly--and this sets Clowes apart from many of his contemporaries--this story is actually funny. It is, after all, a comic.

Other stories include the heartbreaking "Like a Weed, Joe" and "Immortal, Invisible," both about teens reluctantly entering adulthood. "Gynecology" is the most complex story, about a gynecologist's wife, the young man she's sleeping with, a prominent rock star and other assorted weirdos. The collection wraps up with "Black Nylon," a brilliant parody of superheroes and their genre.

If you haven't read Clowes, Caricature is an excellent showcase of his formidable talents. And even for hardcore Eightball fans, there's a story, "Green Eyeliner," previously published only in Esquire magazine. You can find Caricature at Wavy Brain and maybe a few other hip spots in town. Run, don't walk. (NM)

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