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IN BRIEF

Fiction

September 29, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS

THE BOOKSELLER by Matt Cohen (St. Martin's Press: $22.95, 242 pp.). Lucid storytelling about murky relationships marks this novel by a leading Canadian writer. After their family breaks up--their mother leaves, their father dies--Henry and Paul Stevens take divergent paths. Henry, a teenage boxer and tough guy, settles down, gets married and runs a garage. Paul, the narrator, escapes to Toronto, works in a bookstore and hangs out on the fringes of the literary world.

But neither brother's life is what it seems. Henry, who never quite severed his ties to the underworld, is in debt to a corrupt cop, Nicko Ross, who happens to know Paul's drug-addicted girlfriend, Judith. Suddenly, long-held secrets turn into threats. Paul must decide whether he loves Judith or is merely obsessed by her; the brothers must figure out what, if anything, they still mean to each other.

Cohen ("Emotional Arithmetic") gives this novel echoes of Paul's favorite authors, Dickens and Flaubert. The decadence of once-staid Toronto society is satirized in a parade of broadly comic characters: TV hosts, pimps, hookers, junkies, bodybuilders, eccentric booksellers, neglected poets. Meanwhile, Paul is acutely sensitive to changes in weather and degrees of menace, passion and intoxication. The two levels of narrative blend easily, dissolved in a reflective tenderness that is Cohen's own.

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