Real estate greed; lively teens; cheeky slacker

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE KING OF KINGS COUNTY

By Whitney Terrell. Viking. 361 pages.

Half coming-of-age tale and half tangled history of a modern American city, Terrell's second novel manages to be both intimate and epic. Narrated by a watchful 14-year-old named Jack Acheson, the book begins in the mid-1950s on the brink of a new era in Kansas City, Mo.

Jack's father Alton, a schemer with big dreams but little cachet, is determined to cash in on the city's expansion when a new interstate highway transforms the outlying cornfields into suburbs. His success depends on the cooperation of local mobsters and on the area's richest and most unscrupulous real-estate developer, Pruden-tial Bowen, who is happy to manipulate Alton for his own avaricious purposes. With Bowen's approval, Alton gets busy buying up cheap Kings County farmland for luxury housing. At the same time, he coerces black families to move to the city's east side in order to scare the white population into the new suburbs.

Meanwhile, young Jack, who works as Alton's more or less willing accomplice, falls in love with Bowen's granddaughter. As these teenagers grow up, Terrell weaves their relationship in and out of the real-estate drama with remarkable skill, making every personality here both multidimensional and affecting. Of all the larger-than-life characters here, however, the largest is the city itself, eventually all but ruined by greed and speculation, yet still stubbornly alive.

THE WASHINGTON STORY

By Adam Langer. Riverhead. 416 pages.

Set during the Reagan era in the snug Chicago neighborhood of West Rogers Park, Langer's second novel, a sequel to Crossing California (2004), follows the same group of lively teenagers as they support Harold Washington's mayoral campaign, record the trajectory of Halley's Comet, fall in love, apply to college, and cope with their complicated families. At the group's center is Jill Wasserstrom, still mourning her dead mother and living in the shadow of her fiercely sexy older sister; Jill's boyfriend Muley Wills, a gifted and quixotic artist; and troubled Hillel Levy, desperately seeking a father figure in Muley's own estranged father, a music impresario named Carl "Slappit" Silverman. Dense with Chicago lore and 1980s pop-culture references, Langer's plot occasionally gets lost in its own details, but his genuine affection for his characters is irresistible.

INDECISION

By Benjamin Kunkel. Random House. 256 pages.

The success of Kunkel's debut volume will depend on his audience's tolerance for cheeky slacker novels about wisecracking, directionless preppies. Twenty-eight-year-old Dwight Wilmerding, Connecticut-raised and currently living in cheerful squalor in downtown Manhattan, has just been fired from his go-nowhere job at Pfizer.

A little too delighted with his own perpetual underachievement, he's ambivalent about his beautiful Indian girlfriend, unsure where he stands with his frosty divorced parents and brilliant older sister, and indecisive about, well, everything. On an impulse he jets off to Ecuador to track down Natasha, his high-school crush, but is lured instead toward a jungle adventure, a wealth of drugs both pharmaceutical and natural, and an entertainingly humorless Belgian activist named Brigid. Kunkel, who is the editor of the literary journal n+1, is a talented and funny writer. When he decides to finish flirting aimlessly with his readers' good will, he just might settle down into an author of some significance.

THE TESTING OF LUTHER ALBRIGHT

By MacKenzie Bezos. Fourth Estate. 256 pages.

The eternal struggle between fathers and sons gets another spin in Bezos' tale about a Sacramento civil engineer and his family. Luther Albright is a meticulous designer of dams whose 15-year-old son, Elliot, begins to test his father with increasingly challenging behavior.

While not long ago Elliot was eager to spend time with his parents, helping Luther with a variety of household renovations, he's now growing distant. One morning he arrives downstairs for breakfast with a shaved head, while on another occasion he proudly displays a girl's underwear in his bathroom. Perhaps worst of all, as a subject for a school biography project he chooses Luther's own father, with whom Luther had a stormy, awkwardly unresolved relationship.

Over the course of a year, Luther's failure to communicate adequately with both Elliot and with his long-suffering wife, Liz, drives a wedge through this solemn little family, whose idea of fun used to consist of walking around their neighborhood identifying construction oversights. In an effort to echo Luther's finicky self-control, Bezos' narrative is dismayingly earnest and exacting. She scrutinizes the life out of these characters, whose difficulties never seem quite as dire as she would like readers to believe.

LITTLE BEAUTIES

By Kim Addonizio. Simon & Schuster. 256 pages.

Surprisingly deep for a comedy, Addonizio's first novel charts three eccentric female personalities as they struggle with their individual frailties. Diana is an obsessive-compulsive hand-washer whose marriage has recently ended and who despises her job at a baby-goods store in Long Beach, Calif. Jamie is a depressed and pregnant 17-year-old who had decided not to keep her baby.

But after Jamie gives birth in a stranger's Mercedes, her newborn daughter, Stella, exerts forceful pressure on her unpromising young mother. The duo moves in with Diana, who's sympathetic as long as Jamie follows her many rules of cleanliness, while Jamie tries to figure out what to do.

Narrated by the alternating voices of Diana, Jamie, and Stella, the book is distinguished by a hard-nosed spirituality: These peoples' lives are messy and often painful, but never without humor or hope.

WILLFUL CREATURES

By Aimee Bender. Doubleday. 224 pages.

A man goes to a pet store and buys a miniature man in a cage, whom he mistreats brutishly. A family of pumpkinheads copes with the birth of a third child whose head is a steam iron. A woman nurtures a potful of potato babies. A boy is born with fingers shaped like keys. Yes, folks, we've arrived at a collection of stories by Aimee Bender, whose previous books, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and An Invisible Sign of My Own, earned her a reputation as America's finest surrealist since Nathanael West. This new book, however, is disappointing. Too many of the tales are sketchy and undeveloped, their infrastructure too fragile to hold the monumental burdens of loneliness, fear and sinister impulses that Bender's characters bear here. In the end, her powerful fabulism leaves the reader more baffled than impressed.

Donna Rifkind is a former literary agent and magazine editor whose writing has been published by Commentary, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times.

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