With beetles making up one of every four species on Earth, it will come as no surprise, at least not to entomologists and fanciers of the more exotic stories of Kafka and Gogol, that the Russian Victor Pelevin has populated the universe of his second novel, "The Life of Insects," with a menagerie of beetles, ants, moths, cockroaches and flies. One scene, a quiet bit of philosophy passed on by a father to his son as they walk to the beach, is as moving as any slice of Turgenev. And the pathos of its payoff, when the young dung beetle finally reaches the strand, is pure Chekhov. What is truly stunning is the whole-cloth originality of Pelevin's vision. His characters break in and out of their human cocoons with an ease that would be the envy of any morph-master. The author defies the reader to gum the simple taxonomic labels of political, existential or absurd onto his novel. Instead, he asks us to look with the split vision of the scarab beetle, using feel as much as logic. "The Life of Insects" is a virtuoso performance, at times as deep-hearted as a Tchaikovsky pas de deux, at others as light-fingered as "Flight of the Bumblebee."
-- JONATHAN LEVI
NOSFERATU; By Jim Shepard; Alfred A. Knopf: 216 pp., $22
Can there be any doubt that novelists are possessed by their subjects? We know Jim Shepard, author of "Battling Against Castro," "Kiss of the Wolf," "Lights Out in the Reptile House" and others, to be a mild-mannered, precise writer. Indeed "Nosferatu" has many of these stylistic attributes, but all too close to the surface burns the hypnotic, viral spirit of the vampire. This novel is out of control, completely infected by that spirit. The plot glides and shudders. It is the life, as Shepard imagines it, of F.W. Murnau, the German director. Since Shepard has been bitten in the course of writing "Nosferatu," he and Murnau are inseparable. The result is brilliantly cinematic--a figure looming in the corner of each scene, with an even larger shadow behind him on the wall. It will take days to shake this one off.
-- SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS
THE FISHERMAN'S SON; By Michael Koepf; Broadway Books: 288 pp., $24
"The Fisherman's Son" is a gritty novel with a hard-hitting intensity that comes from Michael Koepf's 19 years as a working fisherman. The pages reek of fish guts, hardship and rough companionship. There is a passionate authenticity in his words. Koepf knows the people he writes about and has lived among, so his reach into the California fishery of the 1940s and the present is comprehensive. Moments crackle with affection and humor. Brilliantly written and mesmerizingly evocative, Koepf's extraordinary novel is a tribute to tough men and their long-suffering, and sometimes not-so-long-suffering, families.
-- BRIAN FAGAN
THE TALE OF THE 1002ND NIGHT; By Joseph Roth; Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann: St. Martin's: 266 pp., $23.95
Joseph Roth's last published work, "The Tale of the 1002nd Night," has just been issued in English for the first time by St. Martin's, while most of his other fiction was republished during the 1980s by Overlook Press in a massive undertaking of cultural and historical fidelity. Together they bring to light one of the most important and unjustly lesser-known writers of the century. Roth is the exemplar of the rootless, cosmopolitan wanderer with as keen a recognition of his own condition as his more febrile peers, Franz Kafka and Bruno Schultz. The latter's poetic incandescence, the former's hysterical martyrology and Roth's own worldly analytical despair represent three points of a triangle that defines the diasporic imagination. Yet what's finally most remarkable about Roth as a writer is his prescience. Though he ostensibly looked backward from the 1930s to the 1910s and earlier, he also anticipated the 1940s and beyond. His books possess an eerie clairvoyant feel; they are shattering in their simplicity, exalting in their moral philosophical weight.
-- MELVIN JULES BUKIET
LOVE AND TERROR; By Alan Jolis; Atlantic Monthly Press: 338 pp., $24
"History is a qualitative filter, and events recorded for posterity are a pitiful fraction of the ones that actually take place," writes Alan Jolis in an explanatory epilogue to this elegant historical novel. "When the filter of history sifts out significant events along with more trivial ones," he adds, "it is up to the novelist to go scraping the bottom of the sieve." From the imagined remnants of one of the colossal events in human history, the French Revolution, Jolis has constructed a suspense story that is indeed a tale of love and passion. The necessity for compassion permeates "Love and Terror": The novelist's picturesque details enhance this knowing sketch of the confused and ardent human heart.
-- ANTHONY DAY
BEACH BOY; By Ardashir Vakil; Scribner: 240 pp., $22