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IN BRIEF

Fiction

August 29, 1993|Sonja Bolle

THE FIVE-DOLLAR SMILE by Shashi Tharoor (Arcade Publishing: $18.95; 175 pp.) The enthusiasm for Shashi Tharoor's novels ("The Great Indian Novel" in 1989 and "Show Business" last year) provided the impetus to publish these early stories, written mostly when Tharoor was a teen-ager. The author explains in his introduction that even in grammar school he entertained his friends with stories he had written, and after his first published story appeared when he was 10, he published voluminously in the Indian mass-circulation magazines. The stories in this collection clearly are writing exercises, happily slipping in and out of various styles like jackets at a Melrose Avenue shop. They range from the shamelessly sentimental through the poignant to the hilarious, as in this most British exchange between young fops standing each other drinks at a club: "I ambulated on uncertain feet to where two of the ad agency crowd sat, looking grim. 'I say . . . ,' I began. 'Say no more,' Jit stopped me with raised palm." There is an inventiveness that leavens even the most prosaic tales here. In the title story, Joseph, an orphan at a charity home of Dickensian grimness, is photographed for a magazine appeal: "Make This Child Smile Again. All It Takes Is $5 a Month." The couple who sponsor him send him a plane ticket to visit America, and the story recounts the agonies he experiences on the ride over--not neglecting the cruel injustice of denying the penniless young traveler a headset for the in-flight movie. Even in this fairly heavy-handed story, however, there is a sprightly passage in which, to the nuns' great irritation, Joseph's heart-rending photograph produces not one, but three couples who insist they will adopt the very child in the photograph and no other. Although the head nun briefly considers sending them packing with their conditional five dollars a month, practicality prevails, and Joseph must write his foster-son letters in triplicate to six deluded Americans.

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