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By Blake de Pastino, Tracy Cooley and Julie Birnbaum

July 14, 1997:  American Pastoral
by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, cloth, $22)

For years now, Philip Roth has been wrestling with his fictional alter-ego, the novelist and schmuck Nathan Zuckerman. But instead of warring with his creator--as Zuck usually has--Roth's doppelgänger now narrates the story of an altogether different man, Swede Levov. Something of an anti-Roth, Levov is a consummate athlete, husband to Miss New Jersey and heir to a glove factory--rich material for the hapless Zuckerman. So with his canny eye, Zuck gives us Levov's rise and fall, from hale high school hero to bastion of mediocrity. Through it all, Roth persists in being witty and in tune, although his prose sometimes lacks the richness and efficiency that he used to devote to, say, a woman pulling on her nylons. In all, though, even if the author has lost sight of himself, American Pastoral is undeniably Roth. (BdeP)

Pest Control
by Bill Fitzhugh (Avon, cloth, $20)

Bob Dillon, professional exterminator, knew what it was like to be on his own, like a complete unknown, until an international ring of assassins mistook him for one of the world's best hired killers. Dillon, who spends most of his time breeding new strains of assassin bugs, is falsely credited with murdering a Bolivian drug lord and a Swiss businessman with a lucrative life insurance policy. The series of coincidences that follow, however outrageous they may seem, are perfectly orchestrated with bizarre yet believable characters and unusual situations which could only occur in New York City. Fitzhugh's writing is original, hilarious and extremely addictive. I was mesmerized from beginning to end. (TC)

The Misconceiver
by Lucy Ferriss (Simon & Schuster, cloth, $23)

Lucy Ferriss' last novel, Against Gravity, was by far one of the most rewarding novels of 1995, if only because it was so purely devoted to the richness of its characters. In her latest novel, however, little of this devotion is in evidence. Instead, The Misconceiver forfeits things like character and theme, so that it can give privilege to some hoary social agenda. Set in 2011, when abortion has been summarily banned, it tells the story of Phoebe, a young woman who runs an illicit basement "misconception" practice. Branded as an outlaw, she is betrayed, arrested, escapes and falls in love--all amid hollow characters and lots of hokey, pseudo-sci-fi details. Along the way, Ferriss handles one of our culture's most complicated topics in a decidedly uncomplicated way. Which makes The Misconceiver seem not so much like a novel as some politically driven "what if" scenario. (BdeP)

Kangaroo Notebook
by Kobo Abe (Vintage, paper, $12)

Our hero wakes to discover radish sprouts growing on his shins, visits the dermatologist and is sent on a hyper-equipped hospital bed journey to hell and back. Such is the plot which forms the basis of Kobo Abe's satire of Japanese society through a surrealist lens. One of Japan's best-known authors, Abe wrote Kangaroo Notebook just prior to his death in 1993, and it has been called a "summation of his life and art." The Inferno-esque madness includes child demons, mating squids, a mini-skirted nurse and an American euthanasia expert, and the translation makes for a work filled with rich, unusual language, sometimes right on the mark with its weirdness. One could say the same for the novel's themes: Through the narrator's dreamy journey is an expression of Japanese culture which the strange medium makes wonderfully real. (JB)

--Blake de Pastino, Tracy Cooley and Julie Birnbaum

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