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Storytellers : Good Will: The Short and Long of It

December 13, 1987|KAREN STABINER

Somebody forgot to tell the publishers that this is the season of brotherly love and good will toward men--or maybe they figured that the reading public, so glutted on the milk of human kindness, would appreciate a somewhat more curdled point of view. The current batch of best-seller candidates is notably short on family affection, and long on characters who believe that the only good will is one that names them as beneficiary.

Take Ralph Behr and Gail Benedict in Joseph Amiel's Deeds. Ralph, a Donald Trumpian real-estate developer, would love to take Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, too; Gail is a radical feminist refugee from a Marge Piercy novel who has no intention of trading in her Eastern-bloc peasant dresses for fashions from a trendier eastern block, say, Madison Avenue at 72nd Street. They enter into a two-year marriage of convenience--for the sole purpose of transferring half of Ralph's considerable wealth to Gail on their divorce, to settle an old family debt--and then, can you imagine, these two wacky kids fall in love. Gail improves Ralph's taste in art, and Ralph returns the favor by taking his wife shopping. They look good, they feel good, and they find that they share a deep and abiding ability to spend money. Since everyone else in the book is even greedier and nastier than they are, who could ask for anything more?

Donald Trump's already acted in a cameo role in the miniseries "I'll Take Manhattan." "Deeds" could be his big break, especially if he has less luck beating community opposition to his current development project than his fictional alter ego has. Atheneum starts off with a 50,000 print run and $50,000 ad-promo budget for this Troll Book Club main selection.

The stakes in The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher are small, by comparison: All that two of Penelope Keeling's three children want to do is sell her father's paintings out from under her to guarantee them an inheritance and protect them from having to take care of her. Daughter Nancy is the perfect, plump, tweedy eldest daughter, who'd like a bit more comfort than her bland lawyer husband can provide; son Noel is something of a whiny brat who just thinks he deserves better than whatever he has. Only Olivia--the brash, handsome magazine-editing middle daughter--has any respect for Mumma's feelings. Luckily, that relationship, and the romance that blossoms between Mumma's gardener and a young friend of Olivia's, expand the story to something more than life styles of the almost comfortable and grasping.

St. Martin's, sensing that the 13th time's the charm for novelist Pilcher, will print 100,000 copies and spend $100,000 on advertising and promotion for this Troll Book Club main selection.

One decent kid out of three seems the most that the parents in these books can hope for. In Family Fortunes, John Neufeld gives a contemporary King Lear a corporate realm, two hungry daughters who'd happily relieve him of it, and one, the youngest, who prefers her integrity to his compounded interest. Jack Edgeworth calls his girls together--Adeline, who takes time out from trysts with her chauffeur to reflect on whether there's anything that matters more to her than money; Nora, who'd like to buy herself a future, and Nell, who suffers from social conscience--and announces that he intends to divvy up his properties. Nell, of course, wants no part of it, but an outsider (remember Edmund?) does, so everybody tussles and, since this is fiction, good wins out in the end.

"Family Fortunes" may well be a halfway house between Lear and prime-time television. Just in case, Atheneum prints 25,000 of another Troll Book Club main selection.

The family in William Diehl's Thai Horse is an experiential one--men who served in Vietnam together--but these blood relatives are even more intimate, and more treacherous, than the biological kind. Hatcher, who speaks in a rasp after an unfortunate encounter in prison between his throat and a guard's swinging shovel, is solicited by the very man who framed him into that prison term, to return to the Far East, ostensibly to find a missing soldier whose father wants to see him before he dies. Of course, there's much more to it than that: Sloan, the man who trained and then betrayed him, has deceived him on a fundamental level about the purpose of the manhunt; in the best thriller tradition, enemies startlingly turn out to be friends, and vice versa. The chase takes place against the murky backdrop of the region's heroin trade, with Hatcher a half-step ahead of some cutthroat dealers who have their own reasons for hoping he finds Murph Cody.

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