Expiation, Hammett, shrinks, pure evil; Novels of September


September's revelation is Chang-rae Lee's "A Gesture Life" (Riverhead, 288 pages, $23.95). "People know me here," Kurohata, a Japanese immigrant of Korean descent, begins. A retired proprietor of a surgical supply store, he remains grateful that the Westchester community of Bedley Run has welcomed him. The word "kurohata" means black flag, a clue that this is no novel of domestic accommodation. Flashbacks, reminiscent of those employed by the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami in "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," soon transport the reader to a Japanese camp during World War II.

Known in America as "Mr. Hata," Kurohata was in Japan a poor Korean belonging to the outcast group called "burakumin," tanners and grave diggers, hereditary workers at society's unspeakable jobs, and a word Chang-rae Lee never uses, as his character would not. Eagerly he renounced his parents to be adopted by the Kurohatas and raised as a Japanese. His experiences in the war recapitulate the insecurities of his childhood; his adopting a Korean orphan named "Sunny" is his attempt to expiate his sins, not only those he committed in the war, but of being Japanese at this historical moment.

A villainous doctor speaks the novel's title line: Kurohata, he says with scorn, is a man who depends too much upon "generous fate and gestures." In this brilliant second novel, Lee depicts with rare power how life ruthlessly breaks down those barriers "of sign and shadow."

Dashiell Hammett, a natural, flourished in the detective novel genre he all but invented. A new collection, "Nightmare Town" (Knopf, 432 pages, $25), with its crystalline prose as spare as Hammett himself, is a welcome treat.

Faces are "wolfish" ("Who Killed Bob Teal?"), a man wears "a green plaid suit that didn't make him look any smaller than he was" ("One Hour") and Sam Spade, with his often "dreamy" yellow-gray eyes, appears in three stories.

"There ought to be a law making criminals give themselves up," Spade remarks. Guns are present and guns go off. The reader learns what characters are wearing and cares. Good guys or bad guys, no one changes.

Spade, with his "blond satan's face," gets by on the illusion that "all Samuel Spade clients are honest, God-fearing folk." Hammett adds, "somebody ought to write a book about people some time -- they're peculiar." No one, of course, goes by his original name.

In "Having Everything" (Atlantic Monthly, 229 pages, $24), John L'Heureux shreds the pretensions of a group of psychiatrists just as he did with the English Department of "The Handmaid of Desire." The shrinks are predictably more neurotic than their patients. Philip, the most respected of these fools, is addicted to breaking into houses, a compulsion that surfaced when he was 15 and still in middle age lurks dangerously near.

Philip's doctor concludes that this addiction is "a manifestation of his need to matter, his desire to be special, his longing for intimacy," exactly the sort of mumbo jumbo one would expect. No matter, Philip is appointed dean of the Medical School.

Meanwhile one of his colleagues is being sued by his daughter "Colette," whose "recovered memory" reminds her she was molested by her father. To L'Heureux's amused scorn, these so-called healers behave as if they and their outlandish profession matter. Pompous and absurd, they don't. In this amusing romp, L'Heureux with his razor-intellect reveals why.

From England's best seller lists comes a stylish send-up, "Altar Ego" by Kathy Lette (William Morrow and Co., 356 pages, $23). Rebecca Steele is about to marry her Amnesty-International civil-rights lawyer live-in Julian, only to jump out of the bathroom window at the wedding, playing out the nightmare of every woman terrified as a safe marriage closes in on her freedom. Rebecca soon falls for a black American rock star 10 years her junior.

She's a Moll Flanders at the century's turn, fast-talking and immune to cant. "Happiness is learning to be content with what you don't have," she's informed. Rebecca doesn't listen. Most fun are the scenes between Rebecca and her women friends, who use epithets like "feminist breath" and are not afraid to "cackle." "I'm approaching the age of being dumped for a younger wife and I'm not even married yet!" one cries.

This novel is zany and surprising as Rebecca descends "from dumper to dumpette." "Altar Ego," a wonderful book, offers wisdom through its slapstick.

"A Boy In Winter" by Maxine Chernoff (Crown Publishers, 246 pages, $22) is the somber story of an 11-year-old boy who kills his best friend with a cross-bow. Borrowing from Evan Connell's extraordinary "Mrs. Bridge," Chernoff writes in short, pithy chapters, dividing among three points of view: mother Nancy, her son, Danny, and Frank, Nancy's lover and the dead boy's father.

The best section belongs to Danny, who sees through his mother's attempt to hide her love affair, and recognizes that when Frank says "I'm the grown-up," he reveals that "maybe he wasn't as sure about it as he should have been." Danny is guilty in his knowledge, an excellent insight on Chernoff's part. In a therapeutic essay, Danny concludes, "children and adults need to behave all the time." The good person in this book is Danny, the murderer, the bad one is Eddie, the victim, just one of this fine book's startling truths.

"Hitler's Niece" by Ron Hansen (HarperCollins, 310 pages, $25) is a docudrama based on the historical incident of the murder of the young niece of the Fuhrer. At first, stereotype seems oppressive; Hitler brushes aside his forelock, rants and raves, sentimentalizes his mother, and salivates over pornographic anti-Semitic cartoons. Hansen sets your teeth on edge by using anachronisms like Hitler's "sleep[ing] in," an expression that found its vulgar way into the language years later. Hitler's silver blue eyes and his restless energy make rich women swoon.

Yet as Hitler zeros in on Geli, his flirtatious relative, as the reader smells his personal odor, "a hellish whiff of skunk and offal," this novel becomes oddly compelling. Hansen takes the risk of depicting the sexual interaction of these two people in sharp, graphic detail, and imagines how the cover-up worked. It's all discomfortingly believable.

Joan Mellen is the author of 12 books. Currently at work on a biography of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, she teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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