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The Boston Phoenix 1998 Fiction In Review

Tall tales

By Nicholas Nesson and Chris Wright

DECEMBER 28, 1998: 

1. Heavy Water and Other Stories, by Martin Amis (Crown). Anything by Martin Amis is worth reading. And this collection offers a little bit of everything, including some pretty off-the-wall attempts at science fiction. The best story, "State of England," is more familiar Amis territory: bad teeth, bad breath, bad news. Nobody does it better.


2. Master Georgie, by Beryl Bainbridge (Carroll & Graf). Bainbridge's astonishing novel of 19th-century Europe is narrated by an orphaned servant girl, a smart-ass street urchin, and a pompous classicist. Collectively, they recount the luminous, triumphant tragedy of Master Georgie -- a dandy, a battlefield surgeon, and an authentic hero. This complex historical novel is by turns brutally violent and outrageously silly; and it's also possibly the year's best book, though it lost out to McEwan's for the Booker Prize.


3. Park City: New and Selected Stories, by Ann Beattie (Knopf). At first glance, Beattie's collection of short stories seems a rather bleak affair. The book's overriding theme is the dissolution of familial and romantic bonds, and the stories -- well-crafted and compelling as they are -- are rife with betrayal, hypocrisy, and grinding ennui. Stick with it, though, and glimmers of humor shine through. Indeed, Beattie displays a childlike (and increasingly infectious) glee in revealing the small horrors that lurk beneath the neat surfaces of human relationships.


4. T.C. Boyle: Stories, by T. Coraghessan Boyle (Viking). Despite Boyle's success as a novelist, his baroque prose style and lawless imagination are better suited to the short story, in which he can cut loose without overwhelming the reader. Which is not to say that Stories isn't somewhat overwhelming. At 624 pages, the book includes every short story Boyle has ever written -- from the metaphor-addled pyrotechnics of his youth to the more introspective and subtle character studies of his recent work. The tome holds up under its own weight, though, constantly delighting with its kooky characters, improbable plots, and ever-present bone-dry wit.


5. About a Boy, by Nick Hornby (Putnam). In High Fidelity, Hornby gave us a portrait of a sweet, witty hipster watching his youth fade and looking for love in all the wrong places. This time, he offers a not-so-sweet, witty hipster watching middle age approach, still looking for love in all the wrong places. The year's least ironic novel, About a Boy is quirkily romantic and extremely funny. It's the kind of book you want to hate the way you want to hate Meg Ryan -- but, somehow, you just can't.


6. Breakfast on Pluto, by Patrick McCabe (Harper Collins). Another Booker-nominated novel, Irish author Patrick McCabe's latest is a marvel of psychological insight. As The Butcher Boy demonstrated, McCabe is unrivaled in his ability to trace the mind's descent into madness, and to do so with ample wit and spirit. At once hilarious and horrific, poetic and pathetic, the novel is narrated by an illegitimate transvestite named Patrick "Pussy" Braden, who provides a unique twist on familiar McCabean themes, namely the Troubles and the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.


7. Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan (Doubleday). McEwan won England's prestigious Booker Prize for this slim morality play full of unexpected, often hilariously vicious twists. Although by no means his best novel, Amsterdam gets its self-important characters exactly right -- especially Vernon Halliday, the prevaricating editor of a London broadsheet -- and watching them kill one another off is hugely enjoyable.


8. The Treatment, by Daniel Menaker (Knopf). A long-time New Yorker editor, Menaker has fashioned a very New Yorker-ish novel: a Manhattan prep-school teacher lies on the couch in his Freudian analyst's office and rambles on about his miserable parents and his sorry love life. The Treatment is the kind of book J.D. Salinger would be writing if he weren't busy concocting protein shakes in his hideout: it's sad, tender, archly funny, and quite wonderful.


9. I Married a Communist, by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin). Roth has gotten a lot of heat from critics who read this book as a nasty roman à clef about his ex-wife, Claire Bloom -- an answer to her own recently published sordid tell-all. Nasty or not, I Married a Communist is a masterpiece -- a transcendent depiction of 1940s Newark that confirms, yet again, Roth's place in the pantheon of American literature.


10. The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson (Simon and Schuster). It's no great surprise that the best thing Hunter S. Thompson has written in years was, in fact, written in 1951. The Rum Diary tells the story of a young American journalist struggling to meet his deadlines at the San Juan Daily News while simultaneously embarking on a heroic effort to get as bombed as possible as often as possible. Although it lacks Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas's annihilating insanity, The Rum Diary does offer stretches of great descriptive prose and set pieces of unforgettable Ugly Americana.


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