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April 19, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Sex, Drink and Fast Cars, Stephen Bayley (Pantheon: $7.95). "Why," asks Stephen Bayley, a museum curator and graphic arts critic in London, "does Guernsey, England, a tiny island where the speed is limited to 35 miles per hour, probably have more Porsches per capita than anywhere else in the U.K.?" For most Southern Californians, the answer is obvious: status. Cars, Bayley writes in this offbeat though ultimately redundant book, could only have developed this symbolic meaning in America. "In a continent of shifting values, coast-to-coast franchised trademarks, they provide fixed points, heraldry which consumers can readily identify." To explain our preference for form over function, Bayley consults some less-than-seasoned motorists. "Cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals," writes Roland Barthes, "the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as purely magical objects."

Unfortunately, while off the beaten track, these theories ultimately do little more than belabor the obvious connections between automobiles, status and power. In his conclusion, however, Bayley offers original ideas about future cars--they'll resemble consumer appliances rather than valuable capital goods ("Already there is very little difference between a Suzuki Alto and a kitchen appliance like a microwave oven")--and good news for Detroit: The "zero-defect, driverless car idea might appeal to the Oriental taste for perfection and order, but history and experience suggest that, like people, cars have to be flawed to be interesting."

Metroland, Julian Barnes (McGraw-Hill: $4.95). Coming of age usually means coming to terms with less-than-romantic realities, but this is only partly true of the two teen-age heroes in this flighty, playful novel. In its early pages, Christopher and Toni, "as touchingly innocent as they think themselves world-weary and wise," smirk at the world from Metroland, a strip of suburban dormitory in outlying London, and search for something better. They read Baudelaire at the beach, look at the sky through straws to see a deeper blue, and try to avoid the "surface happiness and deep discontent of their parents." Though Barnes rarely allows the boys to drop their witty repartee long enough to reveal genuine adolescent uncertainties, he succeeds in vividly re-creating teen-age precociousness, particularly what it feels like to be a young male encountering love and sex. The boys eventually leave Metroland, though, and as their world becomes less insulated, they become more directed. Still, the change is far from somber and dramatic, for while Christopher eventually "submits" to marriage and fatherhood (" 'Pay your bills,' that's what Auden said"), both heroes maintain their irreverent curiosity, though it is no longer their raison d'etre .

The Connoisseur, Evan S. Connell (North Point: $8.95). Epiphany passes. But art offers a way to cheat. By capturing and giving form to fleeting feelings, it can extend their natural life. In this quiet novel from 1974, the form in question is a diminutive terra cotta nobleman. The qualities it captures--"unspeakable dignity," excellence, simplicity and yet, somehow, splendor--are those that seem to be eluding the grasp of Muhlbach, the novel's protagonist. A businessman checking out a corporate merger deal in New Mexico, Muhlbach instead finds his own independence endangered when he discovers "the arrogant little personage" in a Taos curio shop.

Connell gives Muhlbach little background (and no first name), but from his empathy toward a college professor he sees "walking against the years rather than with them," we gather that he once had academic ambitions: "Take care," Muhlbach warns the professor. "Watch your step because there's ice on the path." Muhlbach's struggle to discover if the nobleman is genuine is, of course, a metaphor for his own self-searching. To the novel's credit, Connell never over-dramatizes Muhlbach's search, keeping him appealingly irascible throughout these pages. "This ersatz chicken, this wretched concoction," he grumbles about the airplane food, even when in the midst of a struggle to extricate some knowledge from the nobleman. "Speak, speak," he asks it, "Tell me everything I need to know."

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