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July 17, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

DON'T TREAD ON ME

Selected Letters of S. J. Perelman

edited by Prudence Crowther (Penguin Books: $10.95) Perelman was one of our greatest humorists (author of "Vinegar Puss," "Westward Ha!" as well as Marx Brothers movies; "Around the World in 80 Days," and countless pieces for The New Yorker and other journals), and yet little of his writing is in print and available.

This collection of his extraordinary correspondences (to his friends Edmund Wilson, Raymond Chandler, T. S. Eliot, E. B. White, and Groucho, among others) was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is not only an epistolary autobiography, but also perhaps the best introduction to Perelman's distinctive prose style. As Prudence Crowther, the editor of this volume and Perelman's friend in the last years of his life, writes, "He never said anything in an ordinary fashion, but every spin was spontaneous."

ORPHANS

Real and Imaginary

by Eileen Simpson (New American Library: $8.95) "Orphans: Real and Imaginary" is part memoir, part treatise on the condition of orphanhood.

After her husband of 20 years dies of cancer at age 57, Eileen Simpson's period of mourning unleashes unresolved memories of similarly significant early losses: Her mother died of tuberculosis when Eileen was 11 months old.

Her father, widowed at age 24, brought his little girls to be reared at a convent boarding school after their unsuccessful stays with both sets of grandparents. Seven years later he himself was dead of ptomaine poisoning, leaving Simpson and her older sister orphaned and alone. Legal battles between her maternal grandmother and uncle, named legal guardian by the father, prevented the girls' being claimed from the convent school for another two years--no family members even came to visit: "The weeping relatives at the cemetery--where were they? I wondered when month after month went by and they didn't come to see us." (In fact her maternal grandmother's frequent attempts to visit were blocked by her Uncle Vincent.) It took a judge and a legal suit that ate up much of the girls' inheritance before visiting privileges were established.

The second half of the book puts an orphan's lot into historical perspective; explores writers who were themselves orphans, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Tolstoy; and examines the treatment of orphans in literature.

But the book's most poignant moments occur in the first half, as wrenching personal discoveries spill forth, conveying Simpson's bleak, deeply unhappy childhood.

UNWELCOME WORDS

Seven Stories

by Paul Bowles (Tombouctou Press, Box 265, Bolinas, Calif. 94924: $7) An estranged son celebrates New Year's Day with his parents, only to lace their glasses of champagne with cyanide. An eccentric Englishman is forced to leave home for Italy, then Italy for Morocco, as the police discover that tubes of blood in his refrigerators are not supplements for his health but instead sinister aperitifs.

From 1932 to 1975, from New York and Massachusetts to Tangier, Paul Bowles' short stories range from conventional narration to unpunctuated, uninterrupted monologues, consistently bizarre and unnerving.

The title story, "Unwelcome Words," comprises six letters--not consistently brutal, but with enough suggestion of cruelty to make the reader cringe--written to a friend of long standing who is confined to a wheelchair as a result of his stroke. "I've often imagined being in your unenviable situation in the event of a fire or an earthquake. . . . I can see myself lying awake at night imagining in detail what it would be like to be asphyxiated by smoke or suddenly flung to the floor with a girder on top of my legs and the dust of plaster choking me."

FROM ROCKAWAY

by Jill Eisenstadt (Vintage Contemporaries: $6.95) A year in the lives of four Greater New York teen-agers as they graduate from high school, waste the summer together on the beach, and then break apart when one in the group leaves for college. Timmy and Chowder are beach bums in the guise of lifeguards who drink beer and drift around the beaches and township of Rockaway; Peg and Alex, their girlfriends. It is Alex, the brightest and most restless, who escapes to a New England college.

The novel, Jill Eisenstadt's first, is told in a series of seemingly unconnected stories, alternating among the four characters, from Rockaway to college and back again. Eisenstadt has a fine ear, and a genuine affection for her characters. "A series of feisty, compassionate literary Polaroids," Paul Rudnick called the book. " 'From Rockaway' is small but endearing, flecked with the moments in life when, as the author observes, 'there's nothing left to feel except young and a little sad.' "

FALLEN ANGELS

Chronicles of L.A. Crime

and Mystery

by Marvin J. Wolf and Katherine Mader (Ballantine Books: $4.50) A grisly and chilling survey of the most infamous crimes committed in Los Angeles, from the conviction of Army privates John Smith and John Stokely for stealing $400 in 1847 to Vicki Morgan's brutal murder in 1983.

We learn of the extraordinary degree to which political and police corruption flourished in Los Angeles in the early half of the century; of the gambling ships of "Admiral" Tony Cornero docked in Santa Monica Bay, and of the time when Joseph Kennedy Sr. tried to frame his rival, Alexander Pantages, on a rape charge.

A gruesome reader's guide: The authors have supplied the Thomas Guide coordinates so that connoisseurs may locate the actual addresses of criminal sites.

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