You Poor Monster
By Michael Kun. MacAdam / Cage, 350 pages, $23.
This captivating, annoying, fascinating, frustrating, messy, laugh-out-loud tragedy by Baltimorean Michael Kun is all over the map -- of Baltimore, of the 20th century, of the interior landscape of its narrator, attorney Hamilton Ashe, and his slimy, sublime, seductive client, Sam Shoogey, inveterate tale-spinner and improbable liar. Shoogey is as despicable as he is inviting. Ashe is pendantic -- and full of honest yearning. How their lives intersect in a Maryland cul-de-sac is both hilarious and telling. Like Cheever on acid, Kun takes his readers into a complex, multi-layered story that may or may not be the truth in which Shoogey, a war veteran, football hero and murderer in the throes of a nasty divorce may or may not get his comeuppance. Kun has a lust for excess which threatens to undermine the story (most notably in the endnotes), but in Shoogey, he serves up a character we can sink our literary teeth into. A fine, fun read.
The Mysterious Flame
of Queen Loana
By Umberto Eco. Harcourt, 469 pages, $27.
Eco's latest juxtaposes memory and identity. After a heart attack, aging rare book dealer Yambo Bodoni awakes quoting Kafka, unable to remember his own name. He has lost his "personal" memory, while retaining his "public" memory -- he can remember names, dates, facts, but nothing that pertains to himself. Did he cheat on his wife? How can he remember the complete plot from a comic book, but not his own children? His wife suggests he return to the country house where he grew up, to see if it sparks any memories. There, Yambo spends days in the attic, reviewing the literature of his childhood, searching for one thing he actually remembers. The search for his personal memory, however, is ultimately the search for his first (lost) love, the mysterious flame of the title. (When he first meets his assistant after getting out of the hospital, he feels as if he's in love with her. He doesn't know, as he searches, that his first love is what he's searching for.) Illustrated with dust jackets and images from magazines of earlier eras in graphic-novel style, The Mysterious Flame is a touching look at children's literature and Eco's adult dissection of fascist propaganda. Alas, Eco never raises Yambo beyond caricature; his identity, in the end, is that of the books he has read. Thus, Eco's tale seems less a novel about Yambo than about his books. Although a delight for the well read, many allusions are simply too obscure and, in the end, Eco, like Yambo's memory, can't quite take us where we want to go.
By Frederick Busch. Norton, 320 pages, $24.95.
Those who loved Busch's Girls will relish the return of Jack, the down-at-the-heels cop-turned-security-guard, as he leaves his gritty resort job on the Carolina coast to return to the site of his private and professional agonies: upstate New York. Jack's in search of Tyler, the criminal loser nephew of Merle, a lawyer with whom Jack is smitten. But once back in his old territory (literally, the rural landscape is a major character in all of Busch's finely wrought tales), Jack comes face to face with a cadre of ghosts -- his dead wife and baby daughter; his best friend, now dying of cancer, with whose wife he had an affair; and a case in which he never got closure. That landscape of the past is suffused with the dangers of the present -- again, personal and professional. Busch's superb prose is mesmerizing; he evokes Jack's psychic turmoil perfectly with expert language. More than a mystery or tired midlife-crisis tale, North is a provocative look at one man's demons unleashed.
The Writing on the Wall
By Lynne Sharon Schwartz. Counterpoint / Perseus, 292 pages, $24.
Renata, at 34, finally has a stable life. She has a good job as a gifted linguist, a home for her psych-patient mother, and a live-in lover, Jack. She still mourns her twin sister, drowned at 16, and her father, killed soon after. She has big trust issues, but she is approaching contentment -- until 9 / 11. That day evokes Renata's buried past. Her aunt calls to enlist her help in finding her missing boyfriend and tells her where to find her uncle, complicit in her sister's death. She is followed home from Ground Zero by a mute teenage girl who Renata thinks could be her sister's daughter, kidnapped at seven. Renata is asked by the government to learn Arabic and she becomes immersed in the political language of the moment. Jack asks her to take care of his secretary's baby son, Julio, after the secretary is killed in the Twin Towers. As Renata's life starts to coalesce after the terrorist attacks, she finds it all torn apart again, as Julio's grandmother arrives to take him home and the true identity of her teenage guest is revealed. Schwartz's taut, insightful narrative is one of her best, a telling study of how personal and public grief intersect, and a dramatic exploration of the complex nature of language, spoken and not.
By Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin, 448 pages, $26.
At 50, Slade Steadman has writer's block. In search of a cure, he travels -- and dallies with the lovely Ava -- to rural Ecuador, where he has a Carlos Casteneda moment and delves into some local hallucinogens with the side effect of blindness. Like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other substance-abusing writers, Steadman thinks he's brilliant while imbibing his drug of choice. Ava (conveniently a physician) warns him the blindness could be permanent -- along with the damage to his career if people find it's self-induced. But Steadman is certain he's "seeing" for the first time. Theroux has subplots galore about popular culture and shallowness vs. substance. He delves deep into the metaphors of sight and his language is always lush and vivid. What we are to make of the smarmy and egomaniacal protagonist who returns home to Martha's Vineyard a newly famous "blind" writer? Blinding Light might be a tour de force. Or the pomposity might be as much Theroux's as Steadman's.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning writer whose fiction includes Sometime in June, Sweet Olive, Day of the Dead and Other Stories and the forthcoming Touches of Evil. She lives in Philadelphia where she teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts.