Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Annual Summer Reading Section

Introduction by Clay Smith

JUNE 7, 1999:  In Austin, isn't that notion an oxymoron? Who can plow through a book when the heat does its stifling best to inhibit mental processes and render us all a bit more zombie-like than usual? The narrator of UT professor and writer Lars Gustafsson's latest novel, The Tale of a Dog, makes special note at one point of the "slight smell of mould that books almost always seem to succumb to in central Texas. Too much humidity. Too much heat."

Don't tell that to publishers, who target the leisurely summer vacation as the perfect occasion for catching up on the publishing industry's latest wonders, which this summer include Thomas Harris' sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal (from Delacorte Press; on store shelves June 8), two runaway bestsellers finally in paperback, John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Vintage, July 6) and Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (Touchstone Books, May 25), and Tama Janowitz's A Certain Age (Doubleday, July). (Though the real publishing miracles this summer are the long-awaited second novel from Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth [Random House, June 18] and Ernest Hemingway's last work, True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir [Scribner, July 6].)

Expect lots of books this summer about the moon -- it's the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing (James Schefter's The Race: The Uncensored Story of How America Beat Russia to the Moon and Michael Light's Full Moon, a collection of moon photographs, will be published), even more books about World War II (both Robert Kotlowitz's Before Their Time and Sam Halpert's A Real Good War will be reissued this summer), and quite a few Bridget Jones' Diary clones (look for Isabel Wolff's The Trials of Tiffany Trott and Stacey Richter's My Date With Satan). We hope the titles under review refuse to succumb to mold, in more ways than one.


Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown and Company, $24 hard

This is the most frustrating sort of book. Loaded with dense and heavily researched passages that challenge even Pynchon's patience for information, David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men is a collection of short prose pieces that offer firm challenge to a reader's self-knowledge and stamina. Hilarious, terrifying, despicable, and intensely smart, this is a book that breaks down far more than it would ever dream of building up. Wallace carries conventions of postmodernism -- the self-conscious narrator, the manipulations of time, knowing and even nefarious nihilism -- to such ridiculous and belabored extremes as to make them horribly pointless.

In so doing, he lays bare a blithely dark yet accepting perspective of of the human soul. We are evil, Wallace is saying, but he's saying it in occasionally engaging and amusing narratives (and more often in the most thorough and most tortuous of expositions). It's not all bad -- not at all. The four "Brief Interviews" sections are among the best, as the twisted psyches they lay bare in one-sided interview formats are alternately disturbing and idiotic, but always experienced with the buffer of the unheard interviewer. There are stories in "Forever Overhead," "Signifying Nothing," and "Church Not Made With Hands" that are sad and beautiful and unquestionably engaging. There is brilliant circular logical play in "Octet." And time and again, there is the all-too-accurate mirror, simply held up by the author, that forces a reader to see in him or herself all the seemingly aberrant but undeniably normal human qualities that warrant disgust and loathing. Especially so is "On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright's Father Begs a Boon." It is a father's confession, as he lays dying in a less-than-dignified manner, of his undying hatred for his son. His words magnify the fraudulence and jealousy and self-serving manipulations common to characters throughout the book in an unflinchingly honest and candid monologue so comprehensive that no one is safe from a glimpse into the glass. If the inflated redundancy of writerly masturbations like "The Depressed Person" and "Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko" don't chase you off screaming, Brief Interviews will offer many brief intervals of enlightening, though possibly depressing, intellectual engagement. --Christopher Hess


Away Games: The Life and Times of a Latin Ball Player

by Marcos Bretón and José Luis Villegas
Simon & Schuster, $23 hard

Anyone who watches professional baseball regularly has heard this yarn more than a couple of times: Poor boy in Latin country escapes the abject poverty of his homeland and finds fame and fortune in the big leagues. It's a warm and fuzzy one broadcasters like to recite and team owners like to promote, the patronizing idea of America's pastime selfishly rescuing the downtrodden brown people of foreign lands. Sounds like Disney, right? Rarely does anyone scratch beneath the surface to tell the whole story.

Away Games eschews much of the easy romance of the usual baseball-as-savior fairy tale and offers a jarring reminder that baseball is about money first. The sport's foray into Latin America has little to do with good will and everything to do with profits. First-class talent for bargain-basement prices. After all, Major League Baseball is a corporation. And U.S. corporations exploiting Third World poverty is about as American as baseball itself, isn't it?

But Away Games is not some pinko screed against the game of baseball. Its authors are heartfelt in their love for the sport, but to their credit, they also recognize this affection is at times as comfortable as donning a hairshirt. The central story is Miguel Tejada's journey from malnourished shoeshine boy in the Dominican Republic to starting shortstop for the Oakland A's. But rather than simply celebrate one individual's escape from the barrio, Away Games pokes at the underbelly of Tejada's tale to reveal a story of how racism, geopolitics, and Major League Baseball's quest for cheap talent combine to make baseball players Latin America's leading export. Introduced to Latin nations by invading U.S. troops and organized by American business interests, baseball was never really a simple "game" in countries like the Dominican Republic, which, though half the size of South Carolina, sends more ballplayers to The Show than any of the 50 United States. "This has occurred because the island creates players born with the perfect combination of qualities desired by the major league scout -- baseball knowhow and a sense of desperation born in poverty horrific even by Latin American standards," the authors explain.

An important book for any baseball fan, Away Games gives readers a chance to honor unknown heroes like Louis R. Castro (who broke into the majors 40 years before Jackie Robinson), celebrate the achievements of his heirs, and take a clear-eyed look at the complicated ties between Latin ballplayers and the sport that symbolizes both liberation and servitude. It ain't Disney. --Lisa Tozzi


Choice of Evil

by Andrew Vachss
Knopf, $23 hard

There is no other living American author with prose as razor-clean as Andrew Vachss, and there is no other writer willing to go so far into such dark extremes, either. When Vachss turns the juice on, the bad guys sizzle, but then so do you, the delicate receiver-hairs on the neck and arms stretching upwards, the cardio pumping just that much quicker. His words are strung together in perfect equilibrium; when it comes to the Burke novels, Vachss is a zen warrior with a pen (or Royal, or Mac, or whatever). Everything fits just so, until the final bloody battle between the urban thief-warrior Burke and the endless hordes of evil that choke his city like gritty industrial soot.

This is Vachss' 10th novel featuring the cipher Burke and his crew (there was rumor a while back that the author was going to focus on other writings for a while, but thankfully for Burke's legions of fans, this appears not to be the case), and while it falls slightly short of earlier classics such as Blue Belle and Down in the Zero, you'd better believe it's no less arresting than a sharp stick in the solar plexus and a quick kick to the shins. Once more, Vachss (himself a lawyer dealing exclusively with children's issues) tackles his eminently noble raison d'etre -- predators in all their forms -- but more specifically those barely-humans with a taste for the young, the innocent. Steely-eyed Burke loses his woman, Crystal Beth, to an apparent gang hit at a gay rights rally, and in the wake of what appears to be a homosexual serial killer stalking New York City, taking out the town's gay-bashers one by lonely one, he's contacted by a group of gays and lesbians who want to help the killer escape safely. After all, they reason, he's only doing what gays should have been doing forever: standing up and fighting back.

Hoping that his investigation of the killer -- aptly dubbed Homo Erectus -- might lead him to the person or persons behind Crystal Beth's murder, Burke, cautious to a fault, takes the job and quickly discovers that most citizens, from the vultures on down, have come to believe that the murders are being committed by Burke's old ally Wesley, an impossibly proficient assassin from back in the day. Only trouble is, everyone knows Wesley's dead, blown into a million sticky pieces years ago. This is Vachss' first novel to really touch on supernatural themes, and his deft handling of the spook show keeps the story grounded. There are no shrouds flitting about muttering "Boo!" and then disappearing, though Burke himself has always struck me as a sort of shade, abandoned long ago but unstoppable still, fighting the good fight in his own criminal fashion, driven by a dark, foul past, never forgetting, moving ever forward toward his own inevitable end like some vengeful juggernaut. --Marc Savlov


Burning Girl: A Novel

by Ben Neihart
Rob Weisbach Books, $24 hard

Ben Neihart's so-trashy-it's-almost-good thriller follows the working-class, shy, poetry-reading Drew and his best gal Bahar Richards, the flirty, hollow shell of a rich girl Drew latches onto over one weekend descent into the heart of darkness. The two jet out for an excursion to Bahar's family home, a mansion tucked away in the sleepy Pennsylvania woods, where Bahar's brother Jake, also Drew's lover, may or may not be in big, big trouble. And what begins as a carefree orgy of booze and flirtations gets dark and dirty quick, as family secrets, crime cover-ups, and freaky sex leave Drew ensnared between lover and best friend. Neihart goes to great lengths to make sure we recognize his characters are hip, hip, and oh yeah, hip. He uses his playful sense of dialogue with flair, as when Bahar quips about one rival girl, "Hardbodied cool playa Asian gal -- my ass ... so Lilith."

But the chatter just doesn't fit some of these Johns Hopkins juniors, especially sensitive protagonist Drew, so that when he ruminates to himself in a jam, "Yo, I should do something," it shatters the drama. Several characters and moody atmospherics don't add much, they just clog the story's pace, and the final chapters are frustratingly tense and drawn-out, as Drew runs. And runs. And keeps running. And runs some more. Niehart throws in plenty of hot gratuitous sex throughout, but with his limited descriptive powers, you get the feeling that this book, while amusing in its trash chic kind of way, really would work much better on the big screen. The juice is all there, the story just needs someone to wring it out. Kevin Williamson, are you listening? We could nab Cruel Intentions hottie Ryan Phillipe, with his bee-stung full lips and body made for sin, as Jake, the possible killer, and maybe The Faculty's Jordana Brewster as the society slut Bahar, or Denise Richards from Wild Things, if she's still passing for 20. Give Sarah Michelle Gellar an uncredited cameo; cast Matthew Lillard as something. Sucker Third Eye Blind into giving up a single. Stick it in the oven, and voilà! -- that bad boy should be done by September. Now that's hip. --Sarah Hepola


The Ground Beneath Her Feet: A Novel

by Salman Rushdie
Henry Holt & Company, $27.50 hard

Who better to rewrite the tale of Orpheus descending into the earth than a demonized spinner of myths who has lived underground himself? Indeed, the very idea of Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet, an incredible stab at the ancient legend, presents something of a fiery seduction based upon its premise alone. But despite the fact that few people deserve the chance to write such an ambitious and promising book as does Rushdie, he never gains any balance as he teeters to and fro on the dangerous edge of the trite and self-conscious. Much like the classical figure of Orpheus, who ruins his whole expedition by casting that fateful look over his shoulder, Rushdie, too, spends far too much time regarding and relishing the view of his prose.

The Orpheus and Eurydice figures in Rushdie's work are presented as Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara, a couple of star-crossed rock stars whose lives lead the narrative from India to Great Britain and back around to New York. The more readable of the two characters is Vina, a goddess of sex and commerce who has retuned history with her voice to conquer a world that is "both divided and enthralled, many desiring her greatly, some affecting to find her whorish and repulsive; many loving her for her music, others hating her for the same reason." Cama, her lover and partner in the rock bank VTO, is said to have been born playing air guitar and wiggling his fingers in complicated chord progressions. He hears "Heartbreak Hotel" and other rock & roll classics in his mind before they are ever recorded, as his dead brother whistles the tunes from beyond. He is, ostensibly, the secret and mythical father of rock. When Vina is swallowed by an earthquake in Mexico, the story of her life opens itself up for the telling.

To his credit, Rushdie does not become so engaged in retelling the myth that he forgets to write his own novel. The India Rushdie creates is fascinating and cursed, as are the lovers therein: "The city has been a gigantic building site; as if it were in a hurry to become." Furthermore, Rushdie completely succeeds in placing mythologies of all cultures at the core of what it means for humans to think and to dream. But in the fleshing-out of his text, in his attempt at translating ancient lore into present-day fiction for sale, the author presents himself with problems and questions that are not justly resolved. --David Garza


The Redhunter: A Novel Based on the Life of Senator Joe McCarthy

by William F. Buckley Jr.
Little, Brown and Company, $24.50 hard

There's a fine line between fact and fiction. And that line is so blurry in William F. Buckley's TheRedhunter that it's impossible to tell where truth begins and where it ends. It's a disconcerting book. At times it's fascinating. At others, it's just plain boring.

It's never better than when Buckley describes meetings between rabid anti-Communist Senator Joe McCarthy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's J. Edgar Hoover. There is also an intriguing account of a meeting attended by McCarthy and former president (and rabid anti-Communist) Richard Nixon when the two senators met with Whittaker Chambers, the man who accused Alger Hiss of being a spy. Not surprisingly, Chambers encouraged the two to continue their fight against the Red menace.

The book bogs down, though, while recounting the adventures of Harry Bontecou (presumably Buckley himself), who worked for McCarthy when the Republican senator from Wisconsin launched his assault on the phantom menace of Communism in America.

The novel is based on an odd concept: Write a fictional book about McCarthy, but fill it with material that is true. Include descriptions of numerous real-life events like a direct quote from Joseph Welch, the man who finally put an end to McCarthy's juggernaut, when he scolded the senator with these memorable words: "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

It's passages like those that make Buckley's book worth reading; they give a sense of the tension and importance that surrounded McCarthy's every move during the early 1950s. The book also provides a concise glimpse of McCarthy's life, from growing up on a farm in Wisconsin, his failed effort to make good in the chicken business, going to Marquette University, winning his first political race, his stint with the Marines during World War II, how he quit the Marines and returned to Wisconsin to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Buckley doesn't flinch in recounting McCarthy's tendency as a candidate for local judge and later for U.S. Senator to lie about his opponents in order to gain political advantage. But make no mistake: This book is an effort at revisionist history, an effort to remake McCarthy into a patriot, rather than a scary neo-fascist who trampled the Bill of Rights in his effort to root out a problem that may not even have existed. That fact is made clear in the press materials distributed with the book. In an interview about the book, Buckley is asked "Isn't it true that McCarthy never actually named one member of the Communist party?" Buckley replies without a trace of irony, "He gave the names of a half-dozen people who, in my judgment, any American jury surveying the facts would conclude were on the side of Moscow."

It's a strange statement for Buckley to make, particularly since it comes more than four decades after McCarthy's death. But Buckley obviously believes it. And that may provide the best example of how blurred the line between fact and fiction is in this odd, but interesting, book. --Robert Bryce


Poison Widows: A True Story of Witchcraft, Arsenic, and Murder

by George Cooper
St. Martin's, $24.95 hard

Poison Widows beckons fans of two unlikely bedfellows: "News of the Weird" (the "Least Competent Criminals" section) and Law & Order. Poison Widows is the true crime chronicle of the multiple murders that took place in the 1930s in Passyunk, an Italian neighborhood in Philadelphia, that were notorious in their day. Typically, the murders involved an insurance fraud scam concocted and executed by a two-bit "rabbinical" shyster and a couple of Italian thugs. The victims were multiple. If you happen to forget just how many, the author conveniently provides appendices at the back of the book listing the 20 victims and the 30 defendants.

The "masterminds" of these murders typically pegged loutish husbands of simple-minded women who became all-too-willing accomplices in the plots to off their no-goodnick husbands. Where their brilliant plot dims is in the execution of the murders. For starters, the monetary profit from each murder was ridiculously low, sometimes in the mere double-figure neighborhood. Hell, if you divide that out on a per-hour basis (after all, you have to convince the slob to take out a policy, pay a few premiums, then poison him over the course of time) a body would make more money sweeping streets.

The goons covered their tracks with finesse, too. One buffoon, seeking an efficient method of poisoning, asked his local pharmacist about the availability of typhoid germs and whether he could obtain some. When advised that the drugstore didn't carry that particular item, he returned a few weeks later. This time, he told the pharmacist that he had a recipe for a hair-restorer that called for a 50% solution of hydrocyanic acid. The store typically carried only a 2% solution. The pharmacist informed him that a solution of that strength "would be enough to kill anybody" and couldn't oblige him. These guys are slick.

The description of each victim's demise ends with an epitaph: R.I.P., Pietro Pirolli (or whatever the goner's name is). Such wiseguy lingo lends an air of hilarity to the book, some of which I'm not certain is intended.

Eventually, the over-worked DA and his prosecutors get their men and women. Some are fried in the chair, some do hard time, and incredibly, a few get off. While the investigative work to nail the perpetrators doesn't require the skill and cunning of detectives Curtis and Briscoe of Law & Order, the author follows these case histories with equal intensity and in so doing dredges up a most ludicrous chapter in the history of American crime. --Barbara Chisholm


Paris Trance: A Romance

by Geoff Dyer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23 hard

With Paris Trance: A Romance, Geoff Dyer -- Oxford-educated scholar of jazz and D.H. Lawrence -- gives us a lyrical meditation on desire, memory, and time. But more to the point, if you're seeking a summer read, it's also a sexy and cinematic story about being young and in love in Paris -- dancing, philosophizing, making love, and sampling a cheerful smorgasbord of drugs. An edenic trance indeed.

Luke is a young Englishman who moves to Paris with grand and soon-abandoned plans to write a novel. Instead, he meets Alex: "People talk about love at first sight ... but there is also such a thing as friendship at first sight." It is Alex who becomes the writer, our narrator, slipping intriguingly from third to first person and back, making Luke a pale English Dean Moriarty to his own admiring, envious Sal Paradise. Each finds a lover -- for Luke, Nicole, a doctoral student from Belgrade, and for Alex, the American interpreter Sahra. The four spend a year inseparable.

Dyer knows the alchemical synchronicities bred by certain love affairs, and Nicole is trailed by magic-realist elements like her "slow" mirror -- "'Sometimes is slow to work. Like an old wireless. It takes time to warm up'" -- that shows not what is happening now, but what happened a moment ago.

Alex and Sahra do not have the otherworldly connection of Luke and Nicole, "who existed in a trance of longing, inhabited a state of constant wanting." But Alex and Sahra persist and have children -- looking in the same direction, as Sahra says, rather than at each other. It's the revenge of the prosaic on the poetic, for Luke can't move beyond his year of perfect happiness, and so loses it.

Luke and Alex's banter has a stylized, self-conscious hipness (see: Intellectuals, Boyishly Carefree Division) that can pall. And pretension sometimes sounds brassily: "'You're strange, Luke,' says Nicole with a straight face. 'When I first saw you, at passage Thiéré. I thought. ... There was such yearning in you.' 'I was yearning for you.' 'No, it was more. I see it in you still. It's part of you. It is you.'" Hmm.

The real set-pieces of this book are elegies of desire: Dyer is superb with the achingly slow unfolding of erotic interludes, in which the present lingers, as in Nicole's slow mirror, just an instant longer than it should. In fact, these scenes are so dreamy you may find yourself drifting off, only to discover 20 minutes later that you've only read a half-page. But then what could make a novel better suited to a steamy summer evening? --Katherine Catmull


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