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Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

NOVEMBER 22, 1999: 

Eddie's Bastard by William Kowalski (Harper Collins), hardcover, $24

William Kowalski should be congratulated for having written a clear, concise debut novel. He tells the story of a bastard child fostered into a man by his grandfather. Together, William Amos Mann IV and his grandfather, Thomas, uncover mysteries about each other, their ancestors, and their hometown of Mannville, which is named after their family. Ultimately, pleasant, rural Mannville reveals a history that is more reminiscent of a John Waters movie than a Martha Stewart photo album.

What I found disappointing about this book is that it could easily have been written 70 years ago, even though the story takes place in the 1980s. Kowalski is a good writer with a strong grasp of literary history (which he reminds us of repeatedly with a multitude of literary references sprinkled throughout the book). However, his reverence for the past constrains him.

When teenaged narrator and aspiring writer Billy Mann says, "I was not a Hemingway, a Faulkner, a Dorothy Parker. I was a family historian, nothing more," he tells us as much about Kowalski's own fears and aspirations as he does about himself. Obviously, Kowalski has great respect for dead authors, and rightfully so, but I heard a lot more Hemingway than Dorothy Parker in this book. I was hoping to hear more Kowalski than either of them.

Without disrespecting classic literature, times have changed. Unfortunately, Kowalski hasn't upgraded his writing. His book is basically about males who call themselves "Mann." Grandfather Mann is a whiskey-swilling eccentric who needs a woman to cook for him, and Billy Mann aspires to be a daredevil like his dad who died in Vietnam. The Mann family history is laden with war bravado and tales of heroism. Billy emulates his male Mann predecessors by rescuing his childhood sweetheart from her evil father, blah, blah, blah. Kowalski tries to redeem this testosterone fest by turning Annie, the rescued maiden, into a lesbian, presumably to demonstrate that he's down with the '90s. However, this last stab at entering the modern era comes up short. If you're nostalgic for the days when men were men, you'll love this book. -- Mladen Baudrand

The Dark Heart of Time by Philip José Farmer (Del Rey), paper, $6.99

There are few figures in popular culture as enduring as Tarzan. While most of Edgar Rice Burroughs' other literary creations have slipped quietly into the public domain, the Burroughs estate has fiercely reserved the Tarzan trademark for projects like Disney's latest insult.

For decades, Hugo Award-winning author Philip José Farmer has skirted the perimeter of trademark infringement with an armload of thinly disguised Tarzan pastiches. In novels like Lord Tyger, A Feast Unknown and Lord of the Trees, Farmer paints a supremely violent and sexual jungle lord who murders without remorse and mounts any creature he pleases. Behind the gritty surrealism that offends so many Burroughs fans, however, is proof of a gifted imagination profoundly influenced by Burroughs' works.

Farmer's new episode occurs directly after the events of Tarzan the Untamed (often considered the finest Tarzan novel) and plays on an undeveloped incident concerning a scroll found amid the bones of an ancient conquistador. In The Dark Heart of Time, Tarzan is the prey of a relentless mercenary and a bizarre monster whose woodcraft surpasses his own. The conquistador's scroll and some unlikely companions lead Tarzan into bloody battles, hair-raising escapes, strange civilizations and bone-chilling mysteries.

This time around, Farmer's Tarzan is toned down to a respectful approximation of Burroughs' creation, but remains a strange, feral creature fully incomprehensible to civilized man. Had Burroughs been free of the cultural constraints of his time and audience, he may well have written Tarzan in precisely the same way. Farmer's obsession with the notion of immortality as a plot device, however, may not sit well with purists.

Farmer possesses a tremendous talent for choreographing action sequences and has an artful eye for detail. Sadly, the climax veers nearly out of control as he abandons his considerable powers of description in favor of a broader brush. The novel suffers for it, but nevertheless stands firmly on its strengths as a recommendation for the works of both authors. -- Nick Brown

Fortress of Owls by C. J. Cherryh (HarperPrism), hardcover, $24

C. J. Cherryh is one of the best current practitioners of science fiction and fantasy. This is the third volume of a story that began a couple of years ago with Fortress in the Eye of Time. Like most of Cherryh's multiple volume histories, volume one stood very well on its own. Subsequent additions tend to be more fragmentary. It's similar to a television series that follows up on a hit movie, only in this case it's the same writer, so the characters don't alter their personalities.

But there is a pattern. First, Cherryh establishes interest, and readership, with a fairly complicated and well-crafted first volume. After an interval, the characters (and their world) return in shorter, episodic adventures that don't really resolve anything. Fans of book one are eager for more, so later volumes come out in quick succession, not necessarily completing the story but providing respectable continuation. In Cherryh's case, she tends to wrap it up in three or four volumes and move on to a new universe.

I can't fault this pattern, because it works. I am one of the people waiting for book four to get here. C. J. Cherryh creates attractive characters and detailed, albeit fantastical, worlds. She is a good enough writer to keep me coming back for more, and I would hate to have to keep waiting for her to create a whole new situation every time. Like any prolific writer, she often returns to the same territory: the protagonist as a blank slate, whose innocence changes history; the Byzantine wrangling that goes on in politics; the predatory appetites of the privileged classes; and the tragedy of unintended consequences. Each time the ingredients go together differently, and the context shifts subtly.

It is the particular genius of a good science fiction writer to take a completely unbelievable situation and cast it with characters who react like real people. Science fiction of the '50s and '60s gave us realistic hardware and cardboard characters, à la Star Wars in the '70s. Problem is, technology gets a little ahead of that kind of fiction. It's nice to have characters to care about. Unless you absolutely hate all fantasy and science fiction, here's a chance to introduce yourself to some interesting people. Better yet, read all three volumes. -- Dorothy Cole

What Salmon Know by Elwood Reid (Doubleday), hardcover, $21.95

Somewhere in Alaska there's a small log cabin with smoke curling gently from the stone chimney. Inside, surrounded by sparse furnishings, rifles, fishing rod, firewood and sleeping dog, sits a large, quiet man -- skin like sandstone, muscles forged of labor, draped in faded flannel. He's the builder of this cabin, hunter of the food within it, and author of What Salmon Know, a new collection of short stories. His name is Elwood Reid.

Okay, so I'm guessing. But a fiver says I'm not far off. These stories resonate with a brutal realism that seems bred of personal experience. His settings are ranches, bars, factories and riverbanks; his props are guns, liquor, paint rollers -- all the tools for an exercise in raging masculinity. Thankfully, the author refrains from the warrior archetype, letting his characters wallow in muddy pools of real life: alcoholism, unemployment, self-doubt, violence, fear. At best, they hold their own; at worst, they're dragged under before your eyes. These are strong men, but not heroes. Their strength derives from the daily conflict with their surroundings. Victory comes rarely, and only in the form of survival. As in real life, many conflicts go unresolved. Resolution is not the point.

For my money, the standout is "Buffalo." In this unique and powerful tale, a narrator barely able to hold his life together finds himself the afternoon caretaker of a friend's grown son who's "not right in the head." A trip to the Frontier Days festival is meant to keep the boy entertained and manageable, until his consuming fascination takes him on a walk into the center of a herd of buffalo, leaving the police harried and tense, the crowd frantic, and the narrator with no option but to walk in and retrieve him. No hints about the ending, but it's not to be missed.

Though his characters are engaging and their situations powerful, Reid's stories still manage to look like snapshots of real life. He simply takes excellent photos -- on some very bad days. -- Thane Kenny

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