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December 18, 1988|ELENA BRUNET

THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe (Bantam Books: $6.95) It has been said that the job of a satirist is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. By this standard, Tom Wolfe has it backward. In his essays, he has found much to ridicule in conventional liberal piety (or "radical chic" as he once, notoriously, called it).

"The Bonfire of the Vanities" is Wolfe's first foray into fiction. Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street whiz kid, is driving through Harlem, his mistress at the wheel of the Mercedes, when they run over a young black man--a disaster that begets a series of further disasters, erupting into a sensational criminal trial, a race war (the metaphorical bonfire of the book's title).

Celebrators of Wolfe's novel (of which there are many) argue that Wolfe's ridicule is scattershot, if not evenhanded--that high society is pilloried as well as low--brokers, bankers, as well as left-wing lawyers and the city's poor. But as Richard Eder noted in these pages, "The harshness is evenhanded. It is (Wolfe's) sympathy that is one-sided and that gives 'Bonfires' . . . its moral gimp."

36 CHILDREN

by Herbert Kohl, illustrated by Robert George Jackson III (New American Library: $7.95) This is the true story of a white teacher's efforts to win the confidence and trust of 36 black sixth-grade students in a Harlem elementary school. When Herbert Kohl first arrives at his new assignment in 1962, fellow staff members warn him about the ghetto children, telling him they are "illiterate, indifferent, dangerous . . . animals." He finds that his training and degree from Teachers College, Columbia, did not prepare him for a roomful of anxious, hostile, silent faces. Here he learns instead to listen to the children, how to interact with them--with extraordinary results.

"In '36 Children' I wanted to demonstrate that the myth that educational failure was the children's fault is both false and dangerous . . . ," Kohl writes. "The children were blamed for the failures of their teachers and of the system that paid people who simply could not serve the community they worked in."

IDOLS OF PERVERSITY Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture by Bram Dijkstra (Oxford University Press: $14.95) This book "contains a few scenes of exemplary virtue and many more of lurid sin" from a century ago, Dijkstra writes. "Much of it deals with magnificent dreams of intellectual achievement doomed to wither before the tempting presence of woman."

Drawing from exhibition catalogues, art magazines and popular books, the author has compiled a collection of illustrations ("a veritable iconography of misogyny") of nuns and nymphs, maenads and sirens, virgin whores and dead ladies, which he feels dominated the popular arts between 1880 and 1920, particularly in Europe.

"Hasty and often debatable in explanation and analysis, Dijkstra is exhilarating when he gets down to description and denunciation," Eugen Weber wrote in these pages.

HARD TO BE GOOD by Bill Barich (Perennial Library / Harper & Row: $6.95) In the title story of this fine collection, Shane's grandparents, with whom he's been living since his mother, Susan married her third husband, return him to her in Mendocino County after he's arrested for smoking dope. Susan, having simplified her life since her hippie days in Haight Ashbury, expects Shane to do the same.

In "Giorgio's Mother," Burnham agrees to teach the recalcitrant Giorgio to swim. Although he's only taught the boy practice strokes on the shore (the boy won't immerse himself in the water), one day Giorgio, to Burnham's surprise, dives into the water alone--and swims out to the jetty.

As William Murray wrote in his review, "More happens in (these seven stories) than in most contemporary novels, and it's a tribute to this writer's skill that he doesn't waste our time telling us one word more than we need to know."

CHAOS Making a New Science by James Gleick (Penguin Books: $8.95) The science of chaos, James Gleick argues, will be recognized as one of the most significant scientific phenomena of the 20th Century, along with the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Rather than yielding abstractions of high-energy particles, "everyday experience and real pictures of the world"--such as clouds, arythmic heartbeats, waterfalls--"have become targets for inquiry," Gleick writes. "Simple systems give rise to complex behavior. Complex systems give rise to simple behavior."

"Chaos" provides a survey of the revolutionary scientists seeking order in the natural world's irregularities. As Lee Dembart put it in his review, "The most significant result of (the researchers') work so far is the growing understanding throughout the natural sciences and the social sciences that complexity, chaos and chance are a built-in part of reality. . . . ("Chaos") admirably portrays the cutting edge of thought."

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