Night Animals, Bruce Pascoe (Penguin: $5.95). The creatures are human, and the author has found a singular vantage point for studying their erratic behavior, shedding new light on why they make bold, enterprising movements one minute, while retreating and hibernating the next. This emotional volatility is best seen in "Gravity and Levity," one of 22 elegantly written short stories collected in these pages: Mr. Partridge stands on his balcony, staring up at the sky, "his soul reaching out to the stars from the discomfort of his suit, trying to turn the universe into a page of 'Cole's Funny Picture Book.' When he fails, chances are he'll look down at the street below and experience the sensation of tipping and falling, imagining his body stamped on the footpath between the Toyotas."
Like most of the people roaming through these pages, Partridge is not suicidal; he is surveying his parameters rather than seriously planning to give into gravity. These stories, then, are largely about learning to accept limitations and disappointment: "Cobber," for instance, begins romantically as Cobber touches Mary's cheeks, but then sours when Mary "closes her mouth on a laugh, biting off derision with her teeth" (Soon, Mary also discovers unrequited love). Most of Bruce Pascoe's characters spring back from disappointment, but Partridge is an exception, ending up in a mental home where a nurse plunges a needle into his arm, outstretched, like his spirit, "Not up or down, just out. Horizontal."
An American Romance, John Casey (Atheneum: $10.95). Anya and Mac, the young adult protagonists of this intimate, funny and pastoral novel, meet on a University of Chicago mountain-climbing trip. Despite some cliffhangers during and after the expedition, the couple maintain a spirit of serenity that pervades this novel. Jealousies and uncertainties do gather from time to time on the periphery of their relationship, but danger always is fended off by an equanimity that the author seems to have created as an antidote to the turbulent era in America that preceded this novel's publication in 1977. With their enlightened social consciousness, however, comes a fading political awareness; the protagonists' world is insulated by the glimmer of dinners in Chicago's North Shore and dates in Boston.
Yet, while on the move, Anya and Mac are not out of touch. Mac experiments with independence, traveling to Greenland to experience the silence ("It's like being asleep with your senses awake") but eventually rejects his vision of people as "independent atoms" and holds Anya, expressing "the weight of his longing to reach her center." Written as directly as letters sent to a close friend during summer break from college, this novel is ultimately about the rewards of being lighthearted, of realizing that there are "quick short truths as well as slow enduring ones."
Antipolitics, George Konrad (Henry Holt: $9.95). Superpower arms rivalry continues because we find ourselves unable to decide which is worse: risking war by stockpiling nuclear weapons or risking attack by eliminating them. Awash in political rhetoric, most of us become silent, thus quietly assenting to compromise: reducing, but not eliminating, warheads. Hungarian novelist George Konrad at first seems to be just another doom-sayer picking apart our hopeful resolution by contending that even defused, the weapons are deadly. The political fallout, he contends, can cause formidable damage: "The morality of Yalta is simple: Those who have the bombs and tanks decide the social and political system. . . . The implication of Yalta is that the military status quo determines the political status quo." Konrad's pessimism, however, stretches far enough to transform itself into optimism: By dismissing the possibility of "radical change in the relations of military power," Konrad frees himself to talk about more practical changes, primarily a union between European powers. "Today's Western Europe has no independent political philosophy, and so it offers none of the transcendence that would give meaning to a common enterprise like integration . . . . We need some way for normal social, economic, and cultural conditions to assert themselves freely and fully . . . . Let (the superpowers) go on demonstrating that they can spend ever increasing sums on sophisticated weapons; they will not gain much by it." While useful as a study of political fallout from the arms race, this book is less successful as an argument for total disarmament: Some will disagree with the author's view that there is a "paucity of actual concrete conflicts of interest dividing the Soviet and American people," while others might say "yes" to his question, "Is it a mad fancy to enunciate the principal that no country should keep soldiers on the territory of another?"