Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Blake de Pastino, Stephen Ausherman, Jennifer Scharn, Brendan Doherty

AUGUST 24, 1998: 

Virgin Fiction
edited by Salon magazine (William Morrow, paper, $14)

As we here at Weekly Alibi can attest, short story contests often stir up a crazy vortex of literary voices, from the awkward confessionals of first-time writers to the highly burnished prose of brilliant midnight scribes. And that's how it should be. Surprising, then, that Salon magazine's first nationwide writing competition, Virgin Fiction, should produce a bloc of stories that is so flat and unfulfilling. Launched last year with just two rules--that the authors be under 35 and unpublished--the Virgin Fiction project set out to capture the diversity of America's young writers, but what it ended up with is little more than 20 variations on a theme. A 13-year-old boy discovers the hidden sides of sex at a summer lake; a redneck kid gets hit on by a liquor store clerk; a ménage à trois goes awry. It's a disappointingly short gamut, measured out in the usual doses of disaffected youth, sloppy sex and petty violence. With a few reassuring exceptions, the works of Virgin Fiction sound oddly like they could have been written by the same impatient writer, with a poor sense of pacing, a yen for preachy endings and an addiction to chatty prose. Perhaps the most heartening part of Virgin Fiction is simply knowing that there's a lot more cherry stuff out there than this. (BdeP)

Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll
by Richie Unterberger (Miller Freeman, paper, $19.95)

With music being the most abstract of arts, a critic may be hard-pressed to explain why a talented band failed. This book with the oxymoronic title offers plenty of reasons for failure but few convincing testimonies to their talent. Presumably, the included CD with 12 rare tracks is meant to help Unterberger's case. But Unknown Legends works best as a heart-wrenching series of the tragedies that so frequently strike struggling musicians with a hint of promise: drugs, draft boards, racism, commercial musicians stealing material from unknowns all conspire to undermine the underground. Then there's this on the Punk Pioneers: "If the goal was anti-stardom ... many of these acts succeeded too well." The scope and depth of this collection is impressive, relying heavily on personal interviews to cover every sub-genre from Mad Geniuses to Lo-Fi Mavericks. But the true nature of its subject matter is best summed up by the R&B madman, Swamp Dogg: "It's all about the motherfuckers who didn't make it!" (SA)

Praying to a Laughing God
by Kevin McColley (Simon & Schuster, cloth, $24)

We all know those people who cannot take responsibility for their actions or inactions and choose instead to blame god. Such an attitude has nothing to do with religion, but rather with the scapegoats they invent. The title of this novel is intriguing, though its contents have little to do with praying to a laughing god. The main character, Clark Holstrom, is a man who lives not only in his miserable present but often revisits his tumultuous past. He is 72; all his friends are dead or dying, and the little town he lives in is being swallowed up by Wal-Mart and similar mom-and-pop-business-destroying corporations. When a writer comes to town investigating a decades-old "solved" murder, Clark dives into his gloomy past even more frequently. He partially realizes that the mistakes he made were his to make and ends up seeking redemption not from god but from himself. This man's life is hellacious. Is it a self-made hell, or is it god's fault? Play god yourself when you read this, and decide whether this man deserves salvation or laughter. (JLXS)

Rich Man's Table
by Scott Spencer (Knopf, cloth, $23)

What impels some forward in their lives is often what others spend their lives trying to recover from. Entertainers and public figures somehow are able to "give" themselves to millions, while through jealousy or as a product of neglect, the children and families of such figures find themselves lacking. Billy Rothschild is such a son of a famous singer. While his dad defined nearly two decades of rock music for the young and cultural, Billy, illegitimate and voyeuristically watching his father, was neglected. Rich Man's Table is his tale. He obsessively searches for the father he never had but everyone knew, Luke Fairchild. The cover photo looks like Bob Dylan, and Fairchild bears no small resemblance to the reclusive genius. There are even references that suggest Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited was likely the jumping point for much of Spencer's musings on family and fame. Spencer thanks Dylan for his records in the acknowledgments. But Spencer is his own writer, and this, his sixth novel, is an interesting read. Interesting, too, is the redemption Billy receives, as he becomes, at last, a fan. (BD)

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