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First Fiction

November 01, 1998|MARK ROZZO | Mark Rozzo's "First Fiction" column appears monthly in Book Review

THE HISTORY OF OUR WORLD BEYOND THE WAVE. By R. E. Klein (Harcourt Brace: 224 pp., $22)

On the first day of summer, Paul Sant, a Southern California English professor, heads to the beach, rents a surf mat and witnesses the end of the world. A tidal wave crashes ashore, and Sant finds himself floating on a limitless sea. His ensuing odyssey takes him to tiny islands that were once mountain peaks and are now inhabited by creatures both familiar and strange (crabs with human heads, fiendish amphibious humanoids he calls "gugs"). There are the heartily avuncular mountaineer Hiram Bell, who shares with Sant his 10-pound bag of Cavendish tobacco, his bottle of Imperial Tokay and a "snug breakfast" of trout and potatoes; an intrepid trio made up of a waitress from New York, a retired engineer and a helicopter pilot from Scranton, Penn.; and Donk Radlitt, a cowboy who enjoys Sant's tutelage in Shakespeare and Milton.

After a series of scrapes with gugs, whirlpools and terrifying medieval visions, Paul alights on a shore where other post-apocalyptic island hoppers have begun to create a new human community. Yet even as it forms, the town of Grant (named after Ulysses S.) is threatened by the very forces that made civilization so overrated in the first place. Klein's spirit of adventure is contagious in this first-rate post-deluge tall tale.

THE BRIDEGROOM WAS A DOG. By Yoko Tawada (Kodansha: 166 pp., $19)

Tawada, who won Japan's Akutagawa Prize for outstanding literary achievement in 1993, makes her American debut with the three curious stories contained here. In "The Bridegroom Was a Dog," Mitsuko Kitamura is a comely schoolteacher who gets all the moms talking. She assures her pupils that using a Kleenex feels much better the second and third times around, and she tells an eyebrow-raising fable about a princess and a black dog who licks her bottom. Miss Kitamura is too pretty to invite anything more than fleeting suspicions from the community, but that begins to change when her new boyfriend, Taro--a silent, dog-like man--moves in with her.

In "Missing Heels," a mail-order bride arrives in a faceless European city only to find that her husband won't come out of his room. To learn about the customs of this perplexing society, she hires a tutor who sternly informs her that "the average length of time spent in the shower is two minutes and 17 seconds."

In "The Gotthard Railway," a woman prefers the darkness of a Swiss railroad tunnel to the aesthetic stimulations of the Italian sunshine. Like the headstrong traveler of this story, Tawada has an outsider's keen eye and a refreshing appetite for mischief.

STORIES FROM THE TUBE. By Matthew Sharpe (Villard: 224 pp., $22)

A power couple shacks up in an Arctic motel after the husband wets himself and becomes paralyzed at a gala fund-raiser; a mother's care for her 10-year-old son exceeds the administration of chicken soup as she performs a series of increasingly risky surgeries and decides to "blow the family nest egg on a cut-rate CT scanner"; two twentysomething women become bridesmaids for the 19th time and find themselves competing for the attentions of a wedding guest who resembles Rasputin; a woman constrained by bourgeois New York unexpectedly turns into Marilyn Monroe at an art-house matinee of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and becomes a soothsayer to a parade of oddballs; a grandmother with terminal cancer moves in with her 13-year-old grandson, who accompanies her on missions to score dime bags of marijuana in Washington Square: The scenarios that spin out of these 10 stories are as unlikely as they are familiar, perhaps because each one of them is inspired by a television commercial. Like that dreaded and debased form, Sharpe's stories are wildly effective--and often touching--collisions of the banal and the surreal.

BILLY DEAD. By Lisa Reardon (Viking: 260 pp., $22)

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