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November 29, 1998|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | Susan Salter Reynolds is an assistant editor of Book Review

JUNGLE WEDDING; By Joseph Clark ; (W.W. Norton: 192 pp., $22.95)

"Tripping on liquid godhead," thinks the video artist-narrator of the title story in this collection, "I'm beginning to think of myself in the third person, no longer someone making a film, but someone in a film that's veering out of control." This is the main thing to love about Joseph Clark: He writes as if he's tripping on liquid godhead. And the scary thing is that the way his characters talk seems more realistic than the way people really talk, in elevators or at the supermarket. You know why? Clark's characters say out loud the things we all walk around thinking. Thank the liquid godhead.

These characters are dangerous. They have no respect for the law, for policemen or social workers or bureaucrats or anyone else leading decent moral lives. In "Frazzle," for example, a psychedelic version of "L'Etranger," the tattooed daughter has a socially unacceptable response to her mother's death: She trashes the family home. (Like most Disney movies, Clark's stories contain characters who are almost always orphans or AWOL Peter Pans.) Unlike short story writers in the past, Clark feels no obligation to include redemption and closure in the arc of his plots. Stories end where they began, bemused and overheated.

RARA AVIS; By Jacqueline Bograd Weld ; (Turtle Point Press: 224 pp., $24.50)

"Things were so bright" thinks Lita, the voice of reason in her otherwise exceedingly bizarre family, "that you needed to shield your eyes to see." A wealthy household in an unnamed South American country is run by a beautiful, foul-mouthed parrot named Soraida. Between the epithets, Soraida tries to rally the family to defend itself against the authorities who are going to put them on trial for unspecified charges, namely torpor, wealth and lassitude. "What kind of family is this?" the judge wants to know. Soraida gives a fabulous performance for the jury: "The jungles of my birth were killing fields," she tells a teary audience. "Families are like jungles," she explains. "Every once in a while one needs a machete to clear the undergrowth, to get rid of the weeds and the chokers." "Rara Avis" is a sliver of "House of the Spirits" or "Autumn of the Patriarch," a diverting example of what happens when a dysfunctional family is described using magical realism.

UNDER THE AUTUMN STAR; By Knut Hamsun ; Translated from the Norwegian by Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass (Sun & Moon: 112 pp., $11.95)

Scandinavian literature can be every bit as surreal as South American, with extremes in color and temperature and temperament. In this novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian, farmhand Knut Pederson's (the author's real name) oddity lies in his relationships with women, a comedy of mannersthat is too vivid to be very funny. The social dollhouse these characters live in excruciating relationships with women, a comedy of manners (upstairs, downstairs, inside and out) is rural Norway at the turn of the century, where farmhands move from property to property picking up odd jobs and fraternizing with scullery maids. Hamsun's narrator is caught between classes and vocations. His inability to read signals flashed at him by the opposite sex, especially when class differences render the language of love indecipherable, would make him right at home in a Jane Austen novel. Yet underneath the layers of shame and varnish is a real romantic: "I was so much in love," he thinks one night, "that I walked bareheaded and let the stars outstare me."

FRIENDLY FIRE; By Kathryn Chetkovich ; (University of Iowa Press: 116 pp., $11.95)

A reader is struck in this deft collection of stories by how new writers are often best at describing transitions, revelations and coincidence. It seems to take a little longer to weave these moments together, to explain how characters arrive when they do at moments of change. So Chetkovich shows bright promise--she tries on a wide variety of narrators, from a 12-year-old girl to an elderly man, all unhappy or uncertain in their relationships, all fending off loneliness, using whatever comes to hand--talent, beauty, children, money. One story shows a woman so beautiful, Chetkovich writes, that she "looked like someone whose job, once you're dead, is to introduce you to God." In another, Harry coaxes himself back to sleep by "calculating his net worth." Marion, his wife, has the annoying habit of "walking into his head and having a look around." In a party scene from one story, the narrator thinks, "our hellos chirp and bob, and Todd's uneven voice slides under them like a shovel scraping pavement." These elegant phrases sparkle and would only be enhanced by more detail, more description, less restraint.

TREE SURGERY FOR BEGINNERS; By Patrick Gale ; (Faber / Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 276 pp., $24.95)

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