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Prose Microreviews

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Bloodhounds
Peter Lovesey
Mysterious Press, $22

If this is the first Peter Lovesey mystery you read, very likely it won't be your last. Thoroughly satisfying and all that--several twisty puzzles, a light but not facetious tone, an acceptably counter-debonair police inspector. In England's seaside resort town of Bath a cranky group of mystery aficionados called the Bloodhounds meet once a week to wrangle over which writers and which sub-genres are the ne plus ultra of the art. Meanwhile, the local news media receive a warning in verse of an impending theft; the police misread it, and are busy guarding the Victoria Gallery when, lo, the Bath Postal Museum is robbed of a priceless stamp. Is one of the Bloodhounds responsible? Another verse warning arrives, and Milo Motion, the John Dickson Carr enthusiast who lives aboard a narrowboat, is found murdered in his locked cabin. It won't be the last violent death in Bath as the police stumble from one false conclusion to another. A perfect blend of psychology and technique.

--Rosemary Pepper

Tumble Home
Amy Hempel
Scribner, $21

The seven shorter pieces collected in Amy Hempel's strikingly beautiful third story collection continue to till ground first broken by Raymond Carver. Hempel is a master of economy, and in these quiet narratives about off-center characters the detail of a moment leaves the reader with a complete picture of a life. The title novella (new ground for Hempel) consists of a voluntarily institutionalized woman's harrowing letter to an artist she met just once--an exhausting, searching document in which she struggles to understand her longings and insecurities, attachments and separations, until her examination of shards of memory and her interaction with fellow "guests" eventually allow her to trace their development. Throughout, Hempel's concern is the shifting nature of home--both the dream of escape and the silent hope of return. Her pared prose combines melancholy humor with an undercurrent of deeper sorrow. As one character reasons: "if you had to . . . there was nothing wrong with faking your way to where you belonged."

--Jay A. Fernandez

Wall Street
Doug Henwood
Verso, $25

The manic machinations of post-Reagan Wall Street may seem faddish, frivolous and unconnected to the real world most of us live in, but according to Henwood, they reflect a profound change in capitalism: the rise of the "rentier-creditor" sector over traditional corporate ownership and management. Henwood, editor of the Left Business Observer, argues that the premises of the new casino economy, particularly that "markets optimally allocate social capital" and that "money and credit are neutral means of exchange," are conceptual fig leafs covering a unprecedented concentration of power. Very little money from the stock market ever makes its way into real productive investment, Henwood shows; furthermore, the determination of the price and supply of money is no mere technical matter but a crucial conduit of social control. With irreverence and often incisive wit Wall Street analyzes how arcane mechanisms such as bond markets, trade in government debt, commodities futures, deregulation of national currencies, Federal Reserve policy, and the stock market have effected "a systematic re-organization of ownership claims over society's productive assets"--one that might well have made the 19th-century robber barons blush.

--Phil Leggiere

The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman
Dalkey Archive Press, $16.95

It is still possible to find in used bookstores copies of four of W. M. Spackman's stylish, idiosyncratic, almost cloyingly elegant short novels--An Armful of Warm Girl, A Presence with Secrets, A Difference of Design, and A Little Decorum, for Once. Products of an unusual late-flowering, these books are rhapsodic celebrations of the worldly pleasures, most especially the pleasures of adultery, seen and depicted through a cosmopolitan literary tradition stretching from Ovid to Proust. This edition brings together in one volume all four of these novels, along with his last, unpublished book and a streamlined version of his first. It is devoutly to be wished that some quixotic publisher might re-issue Spackman's On the Decay of Humanism, a critical book of astonishing arrogance, brio, and erudition. No one, now, writes like Spackman, though there are definite affinities between him and Edmund White, or Nabokov, or, perhaps most of all, James Merrill. His last book ends as follows, with a triad of sentences, reached after much stylistic intoxication, each of them worth the price of the present volume: "Suzanne saw us, and waved, and put the sorrel into a trot, and he came up to us scuffling nimbly through the drifts of leaves, nickering politely to the filly, ears cocked. `Ah god,' I heard my uncle mutter, `what a pretty thing a pretty girl is!' and he went to meet her, holding out his arms. And, well, young women were fond of my uncle: she dismounted into them, to be kissed."

--Christopher Cahill

Bear and His Daughter: Stories
Robert Stone
Houghton Mifflin, $24

In these seven stories written over the past 30 years, Stone's stormy relationship with irony, his companion and weapon, is on fiery display. The relationship has developed like a good marriage, leading his characters to fractured but increasingly brilliant episodes of self-revelation. In the 60s-era stories--"Porque No Tiene, Porque Le Falta" and "Aquarius Obscured"--edgy transcendence is often fueled by drugs; the heightened perception the characters seek unravels with the high. More recent protagonists struggle to maintain a precarious recovery. Elliot, the social worker in the tragi-comic masterpiece "Helping," falls off the wagon when he sees that the mindless horror he experienced in Vietnam has arbritrarily infected the American subconscious. Mary Urquhart of "Miserere" has traded her bottle for the monstrous grace she experiences in baptising foetuses. The highly autobiographical "Absence of Mercy" traces a photographer's taste for violence to his Dickensian childhood. But Stone refuses to let hot topics such as abuse trivialize his furious compassion. The vortex of memory, madness, and death into which "Smart, the bearded poet" spins with his illegitimate daughter in the title novella betrays a belief in the power of language to reveal, even if the irony is that the revelation usually arrives too late.

--Mark Harril Saunders

Notes on the Cinematographer
Robert Bresson
Green Integer, $8.95

History or Messages From History
Gertrude Stein
Green Integer, $5.95

Eensy-weensy books (among them Penguin Sixties, Shambahla Classics of Spirituality, and, my favorite, on sale at Tower Records, the mini-biographies issued under the heartbreaking rubric "They Died Too Young") are ubiquitous these days. Feel-good books, fetishes, they reflect and even embrace the very deficiencies they pretend to redress: these are classics in a format to reassure the anxious reader that, after all, no one has time to read classics. Green Integer hopes to make an offbeat contribution to this genre, aiming, as the back inleaf says, to publish "all such ephemera as may appear necessary to bring society into a slight tremolo of confusion and fright at least" (my italics). Not likely, I'm afraid.

For all that, these first two books are good to have. Robert Bresson is a cinematographer whose work is marked by its radical restriction of formal and technical means: Music and fancy camerawork are eschewed; the frames exhibit simple, often repetitive compositions; actors do not act, but state their lines in a near monotone. His movies recount fatalistic stories about grace and destruction as it were without comment, but to powerful and altogether singular effect. Notes lays out the principles behind this practice in aphoristic form. Bresson inveighs against cinema that apes the conventions of theater, setting forth by contrast a purist conception of cinematography that genuinely reflects, as he sees it, the medium of film: "Your genius is not in the counterfeiting of nature (acts, sets), but in your way of choosing and co-ordinating bits taken directly from it by machines." But this formalist faith is spiritual in its content: "divination--how can one not associate that name with the two sublime machines I use for my work? Camera and tape recorder carry me far away from the intelligence which complicates everything."

Gertrude Stein is another 20th-century formalist master, though more of a riddler than a visionary. History or Messages from History is particularly gnomic work. Her idiom is as always elaborated from short, chiming sentences: they carry an ambiguous echo of the hornbook and the nursery rhyme, and they strike the reader as simple-minded but also, in a sophisticated and mystifying way, as placed in evidence. Here history is often mentioned--along with bicycles, cakes, oxen, Mildred and Pierre--while, as elsewhere in Stein's work, sections are carefully but inconsequentially demarcated--part ii follows part ii--and material shades into the senseless: "An beautiful." In general, Stein appears to conceive of history as the cubists did perspective--as a term of reality and wholeness that artwork subverts, so as to make it newly present to the reader or viewer. "Do think things," Stein says encouragingly. If you have ears to hear, often it can be pleasant.

--Edwin Frank

Within the Context of No Context
George W. S. Trow
Atlantic Monthly Press, $20

Trow's virtuosic essay on television and the decline of American culture, first published in The New Yorker in 1981, now appears in a slim volume with a new, autobiographical introduction. According to Trow, his baby-boom generation has grown up without a sense of history, social class, regional distinctions, or any of the other institutions that once structured American life. In their place is television, which isolates the individual while providing a factitious sense of intimacy; in Trow's words, American life now exists on only two levels, "the grid of intimacy" and "the grid of 200 million." Written in a mannered, aphoristic style, these essays leave no doubt about Trow's intelligence and insight. But many of his sweeping indictments are less novel than he seems to think; as a lament for American shallowness, his book sits squarely in the tradition of Sister Carrie and The Education of Henry Adams. Then again, that's pretty good company to be in.

--Adam Kirsch

Originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Boston Review



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