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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | FICTION

GOOD HAIR By Benilde Little Simon & Schuster: 237 pp., $22

December 29, 1996|KAREN GRIGSBY BATES

Benilde Little, in her first novel, "Good Hair," has written what some might consider an oxymoron: a black comedy of manners. Contrary to what's normally seen of black Americans in the mainstream media, where crack and guns are endemic, the only things that come out blazing here are diamond engagement rings--inherited whoppers, at that. And the cracks are hairline, in beloved Limoges passed down through generations.

The economically secure characters in Little's engaging story are, in short, the demographic Sasquatch of America, the social equivalent of the Loch Ness monster: A few people claim to have seen them, but most reasonable individuals dismiss such talk out of hand. ("Black investment bankers, handling millions of dollars each day? Gedouddahere!")

It is, as some people have been known to wryly remark, a small, colored world indeed. If you don't know it from the inside out, consider "Good Hair" a guidebook. The people responsible for crafting the image of black Americans much of the world sees--primarily filmmakers and publishers of various stripes--might keep copies of Little's book on their desks as counterbalance to the dreck they keep releasing because it reflects "real" black life.

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