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November 08, 1998|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | Susan Salter Reynolds is an assistant editor of Book Review

THE RUM DIARY. By Hunter S. Thompson (Simon & Schuster: 204 pp., $24)

Gee, maybe this isn't the right way to live, thinks Paul Kemp, the not-so-young angry young journalist in Hunter S. Thompson's memoir-novel about his early years writing for an English-language paper in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the late 1950s. Kemp calls his petty revelation a "dark suspicion," dignifying what is probably just irritability caused by lack of sex.

The guy is a loser and an idiot, and so are his friends. Their principles shift depending on who is buying the beer; their ideas about good writing are sophomoric; their endless self-mythologizing is cliched. (Makes you want to read it, doesn't it? Especially if you have heavy Beat nostalgia.) The most principled journalist at the San Juan Daily News (a paper on the brink of financial ruin), supposedly their best writer, is a guy who beats up his girlfriend in front of his colleagues. Sure, it makes them uncomfortable, but what can you do? The book has some color, but it's got drifter-rot. While Hunter S. has been ensconced for the last few decades in his fortified compound on an island off Puerto Rico, some things have changed.

THE RESTRAINT OF BEASTS. By Magnus Mills (Arcade: 214 pp., $22.95)

"Bang Bang Maxwell Silver's Hammer" is the soundtrack to this brilliant, deadpan novel by Magnus Mills, ex-bus driver in London, ex-operator of "dangerous machinery" in Scotland and ex-fence builder. The novel never strays from its working-class roots; the author never betrays his characters, two Scottish fence builders (Tam and Richie) and their British foreman. "The main concern of farmers," thinks the narrator-foreman in an effort to understand his employers, "was that their fences should be tight. Without this the restraint of beasts was impossible." In a devious, subtle way high-tensile fencing and beast restraint become metaphors for working-class life in Scotland. They get their revenge for class oppression, all right, bizarre and final, but it's a vicious cycle they're caught in, and though Magnus is too good to preach, the desperation of the working class haunts these pages.

ONCE AGAIN FOR THUCYDIDES. By Peter Handke (New Directions: 204 pp., $17.95)

Imagine that you are a writer from Austria who has taken on, in his fiction and nonfiction, all the angst of his generation. You're so twisted by guilt and blame and high culture and literary sensibility that you long to simply observe and record. You want to shed artifice and go back. Handke's most recent work was attacked by many critics as an apology for Serbian aggression. Here he focuses on life's dazzling particulars--ice, that period in the evening "after the last swallows have flown away and before the first bats arrive," a "beautiful woman with glasses and a lilac Borsalino hat," pigeons, cloud formations, "the soft white snow-light . . . over Hokkaido." He tries and tries to see only a tree but he cannot. He sees, against his will, the tiny creatures in the bark, sees them preserved in amber, moss and coals and fire. His observation becomes "a violent hallucination, my ears were filled with the chattering of monkeys." Despite his desire for simplicity, he writes "[T]his frivolousness also fluttered within me." He travels to magical places: the Istrian town of Pazin; the Yugoslav island Krk; Llivia in the Pyrenean highlands; the sea of Hokkaido; Split (where a shoeshine man becomes the patron saint of carefulness). He tries and is finally able "to use what stood at head-and-eye-level to measure the present that expanded before me."

NO MORE / C'EST TOUT. By Marguerite Duras . Translated by Richard Howard (Seven Stories: 204 pp., $17.95)

Marguerite Duras, author of, among other things, "The Lover," wrote this operatic chronicle of her dying in the year before her death, in part as a goodbye to her lover, Yann Andrea Steiner. Strange; it is at once pure artifice, a literary mind in its death throes, and also the rawest thing she's ever written. For all her French sex-kitten affectations, Duras was a micromanager-author, and here she orchestrates even her own annihilation, a bonfire of self-loathing using lovers, past and present, as kindling. Much of the book resembles King Lear's rant in the wilderness ("It's over. End the page. There's nothing"), but here is one of the few sweet passages from the aging succubus: "Your kisses," she writes to Yann seven months before her death in February 1996, "I'll believe in them to the end of my life."

WOMAN ALONE: A Farmhouse Journal. By Carol Burdick (Paul S. Eriksson: 210 pp., $14.95)

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