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MORTAL SPLENDOR The American Empire in Transition by Walter Russell Mead (Houghton Mifflin: $9.95)

February 07, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

Walter Russell Mead traces the decline of America's liberal world empire from the golden age after World War II until the mid-'60s, and its subsequent slide to the present time. He situates the U.S. empire within the ranks of its historical predecessors: Greece, Rome, Great Britain. "That great empires should fall as well as rise seems perfectly natural when we consider the land of the Pharaohs or ancient Babylon. . . . (But) that the decline, and ultimately the fall, of the American Empire is the basic political fact of the present period in world history is more disturbing. . . ."

Mead's own recommendation to shape the United States' post-imperial future is that America recognize its social and economic interdependence with the Third World. He warns that current strategies in foreign policy will lead the United States through countless Vietnam-like wars, some within our own hemisphere. His solution is global in scope, including an international minimum wage. "The Great Compromise of liberal capitalism must take hold in the Third World, or it will fall apart in the First. Without a form of minimum wage in the Third World, jobs will continue to move to low-wage havens and demand will continue to leak out of the economy."

Eloquent in its exposition, "Mortal Splendor" is a philosophical as well as historical and economic treatise analyzing our past and present politics while earnestly prescribing an economic tonic for our future.

MRS. CALIBAN by Rachel Ingalls (Dell Books: $6.95) Dorothy, an unhappily married housewife, begins hearing voices with messages specially for her emitting from the radio. Not long after, a "gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature" who had escaped from the Oceanographic Institute walks into her kitchen and into her life. The creature, Aquarius (nicknamed Larry), becomes her lover, and the events of Dorothy's daily life--her husband's philandering, a friend's betrayal, her own grief at a young son's death and a subsequent miscarriage--become secondary to her efforts to keep Larry fed, clothed and hidden from other human beings.

The people in "Mrs. Caliban" cut shallow figures, "no longer living because no longer a part of any world in which love was possible." It is this world that Larry enters: He is Dorothy's Caliban, as in Shakespeare's "The Tempest," a creature of nature who illuminates what is unnatural in a modern world of radical alienation.

Written in cool, matter-of-fact tones, their fantastical tale is utterly believable, plumbing the depths of Dorothy's despair and anger. Ingalls has created an alternate reality, a magical love affair--funny, erotic, infinitely human--between Mrs. Caliban and Larry, to escape the desolation that is Dorothy's real life.

ATLAS OF WORLD HISTORY (Rand McNally: $17.95)

The product of 23 contributing editors, including 102 pages of full-color maps, this "Atlas of World History" provides a generalist's overview of the major events of recorded history, from the first ice ages to Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 1985.

The authors have provided, in a single volume, maps and charts that define mankind's greatest empires and civilizations, their expansions and eventual overthrows, military and political campaigns, all illuminated by a highly readable text.

THE STARS AT NOON by Denis Johnson (Vintage: $5.95)

The story of an American woman alone and lost in contemporary Nicaragua, "The Stars at Noon" is both a romantic novel and a moral fable about the failure of love in the face of political and spiritual corruption.

The unnamed narrator falls in love with a similarly nameless British geologist she picks up at the bar in the Inter-Continental Hotel in Managua, and together they become fugitives not only from the Costa Rican secret police but from the American CIA. Arrested at the Nicaraguan border, their enemy becomes one, and the narrator is forced to choose between signing an accusation against her lover and self-preservation. That she chooses the latter, with seeming ease, is Denis Johnson's point; Nicaragua is only the metaphorical geography on which he plays out his tale of the failure of human relations in these uneasy and highly exploitative times.

Though Times reviewer Richard Eder found the Nicaragua and the characters within this novel "unfocused and improbable," he admits that Johnson may intend to convey "a sense of an American global myopia." Johnson is the author of the highly regarded "Fiskadoro" as well as three volumes of poetry.

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