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February 18, 1996|CHARLES SOLOMON

AMERICAN STUDIES by Mark Merlis (Penguin: $10.95; 275 pp.). The winner of The Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, Merlis' exceptionally well-crafted novel chronicles five decades of American homophobia and its consequences: "We thought it was just in the natural order of things that the world would force us underground and punish us unremittingly if we dared to show our faces. We all thought it; it underlay every joke and every song." Reeve, the fussy, lecherous narrator, has been savagely beaten by a hustler; as he recuperates, he examines his failed academic career and the career of his brilliant mentor, a victim of the McCarthy era witch hunts. Merlis writes with both literary grace and bitchy wit in this impressive debut.

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