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January 19, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories of Edna O'Brien, foreword by Philip Roth (New American Library: $7.95). These short stories draw us into the rough-and-tumble world of their characters with a force usually present only in longer, more involved works of fiction. Yet, while we maintain close contact with Edna O'Brien's characters throughout these pieces, the characters themselves only find intimacy in fleeting moments. Because O'Brien writes about people who yearn for, rather than experience, the erotic, magical, exciting feeling of being caught up in another's destiny, Philip Roth, in the foreword, justifiably criticizes those who have called O'Brien "an Irish Colette." "Irish Revel," for instance, one of the stories collected here, is darker than works by Colette, though it begins on a bright note: Mary is invited to her first party at the Commercial Hotel, and she's led to believe that John, with whom she has been obsessed for two years, might be there. Mary, writes O'Brien, "felt the joy leaking out of her heart." Yet John never arrives, and Mary soon returns to her house, which, "like a little white box at the end of the world, (was) waiting to receive her."

The Writer's Art, James J. Kilpatrick (Andrews, McMeel & Parker: $8.95). Free gift flashes on TV screens. Irregardless and I could care less can be heard in the streets. Gay has been co-opted by a new generation. It is time, James Kilpatrick believes, to declare war against gobbledygook. Though not one to heartily welcome new usages, Kilpatrick chooses his targets with care. He is hesitant to advocate black-and-white rules, such as a ban on splitting infinitives, yet quick to acknowledge his own excesses, such as one attempt to describe growing numbers of political action committees. "Now proliferation is in itself about a two-dollar word, but that was not enough. The devil was in me. At precisely that moment, a word wandered by. These things are like knowing sin . . . . (The word) slithers along, wet-lipped, scented with exotic perfume; it gazes at the writer with a come-hither glance . . . . The word was mitotically . . . . I hated myself in the morning, but it was too late."

At Mother's Request, Jonathan Coleman (Pocket: $4.50) is a true story that recalls the most implausible of melodramas. Utah multimillionaire Franklin James Bradshaw was a notorious tightwad who cared more for his fortune than for his family. When his only son became ill, Bradshaw dispatched a business associate to help arrange for the young man's lobotomy. A daughter suffered permanent heart damage because neither of her parents deemed her ailment serious at the time. Only Frances, the youngest child, captured their attention. At first, she squandered Bradshaw's wealth, then, when that became more difficult, she ordered her youngest son to kill Bradshaw. The son succeeded, and the family soon fell apart--Frances' oldest son, for instance, tried to bludgeon his college roommate to death. Recognizing that the tale is horror enough, Jonathan Coleman writes in a straightforward style that recalls Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." His direct approach has won the book more plaudits than another, showier telling of the horror story, Shana Alexander's "Nutcracker." Herzl, Amos Elon (Schocken: $12.95) is expansive, illustrating how social, political and historical forces influenced Theodor Herzl's campaign to establish a Jewish state, yet detailed enough to capture little curiosities, such as a quote Herzl inscribed in a school notebook: "We are nothing. What we will is everything." The line, from Friedrich Holderlin, a 19th- Century German poet, is telling, for Herzl saw himself as indomitable, frequently comparing himself to Napoleon and Bismarck. Like many other outsiders in the 19th Century, whose scholarly work was often more significant than the business of illustrious generals and crowned heads, Herzl was fueled by his lonely crusade. Yet, as Elon writes, Herzl was also trapped by his own illusions. Thus, when he found out that he had not been the first to propose a Jewish homeland as a solution to such problems as the pogroms in Russia, he said he never should have written his most influential work, "The Jewish State." And, when he realized that he would never see the founding of a Jewish homeland, he became despondent. In this definitive, compassionate biography, Elon, a former Israeli soldier and war correspondent, profiles how Herzl's decline was mirrored at the time by Europe's fall from liberalism and rationalism to an unquestioning faith in nationalism and racism.

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