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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | FICTION

December 29, 1996|JOHN RECHY | John Rechy's most recent book is "Our Lady of Babylon" (Arcade). He lives in Los Angeles

Every writer has heard "rules of writing": "Show, don't tell"; "provide a sympathetic character"; "write about what you know." For a writer's reading list, I reread books I long remembered without having recognized their importance to me. Such a book is Carson McCuller's "Reflections in a Golden Eye" (Bantam). After describing the dullness of an army camp in peacetime, its first paragraph boldly tells the reader: "There is a fort in the South where . . . a murder was committed. The participants . . . were: two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse." Surely McCullers did not "know" the mood of an all-male barracks, the intimacy and hostility in the ranks. Yet she captures it all precisely. And she detests her characters: "hopelessly corrupt." Lack of sympathy allows her to explore the depths of the "deceitful heart," which Jeremiah instructs is "desperately wicked. Who can know it?" This novel, I realized on rereading, had asserted for me that the exploration of the mysteries of the "wicked heart"--and the imagination of a writer--are not intimidated by "rules."

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