Title: "O Little Town of Maggody"
Editor: Joan Hess
Length, price: 245 pages, $19 Bill Clinton may be Arkansas' favorite son, but in tiny Maggody (pop. 755), the setting for Joan Hess' madcap-mystery series, the big hometown hero is country crooner Matt Montana. Matt's handlers decide to send their superstar home for the holidays in order to combat his growing reputation as Nashville's bad boy.
"Let the media see him surrounded by his kinfolk, decorating the Christmas tree, singing carols in the high school gym, and reminiscing about his beloved granny," his manager schemes.
Trouble is, Matt's only got one living relative, his aged aunt, Adele Wockermann, and she's missing. Shortly after Matt's triumphant homecoming was announced, Adele vanished without a trace from the county old folks' home.
Arly Hanks, Maggody's sardonic female sheriff, is assigned to find her before the festivities begin. Meanwhile, every business in the economically depressed town is caught up in Matt-mania, trying to capitalize on the inevitable rush of tourists.
Ms. Hess has many wry quips about small-town Southern life -- the members of one inbred clan "regarded family reunions in the same fashion young executives did singles bars" -- but clever witticisms aren't enough to salvage this dull book.
A murder mystery needs a murder, and no corpse turns up until three-quarters of the way through "O Little Town of Maggody." Worse, except for Arly, the characters are as torpidly dim-witted as the gags on "Hee Haw."
As this novel begins, Tamra Wells, who "has everything that everyone else wants but it's not enough," is preparing to leave her husband of 13 years after an apparent blow-out over an incident involving her husband's womanizing cousin, Johnny. But before learning what led to that moment the reader gets the history of three women: Tamra, her mother and her mother-in-law.
Each is a black woman who has struggled with what life has handed her on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Examining those lives helps Tamra and her husband in resolving their problems. The book alternates between chapters about Tamra's visit with her friend Wadine in New York and flashbacks to her earlier life.
While the novel is refreshing in its look at buppie (black yuppie) angst and black folk from different strata in society, it's a little too predictable and too long, and the psychobabble ending is unbelievable.
Title: "Snapshot Poetics"
Author: Allen Ginsberg
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Length, price: 94 pages, $12.95 (paperback)
Allen Ginsberg can make you hip for the low cost of $12.95.
Beat poetry is hot, as are black-and-white photographs of literary deviants. Mr. Ginsberg has released a book of such photographs that is attractive, fairly well annotated and capable of making you feel as if you know the poets who gave us works like "Junkie" and "Howl."
Just sit this book on the coffeetable and wait for friends to tell you how cool you are. Even friends who don't know beat poetry from Bud Light jingles will see the title, flip through the glossy black-and-white photos of '60s artists smoking thick, unfiltered cigarettes, and immediately decide it's cool. By association, that makes you cool also.
The major players are captured here: Mr. Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his dog. Mixed in are a cast of odd-looking men and women whom even beat poetry fans may not be familiar with. So the book is really an album of pictures of Mr. Ginsberg's weirdo family and friends; the photos are not particularly good or bad, but the subjects are often quite interesting.
Really, $12.95 is a small price to pay to be cool.
VICTOR PAUL ALVAREZ