Fernando de Rojas' onslaught on the social conventions and codes of his day are expressed in corrosive language in which the virulence of the attack is expressed in terms we feel and experience as our own. Rojas plays masterfully with different registers of speech, verges on sublime obscenity, decants crudity, vertiginously accelerates the pace, threads arguments and phrases like beads or pearls, harries, hustles and converts verbal matter into a vibrantly alive organism.
DEAD PHILADELPHIANS; By Frank Frost; Capra Press: 340 pp., $14.95 paper
Good action thrillers are extremely rare, and there's no formula guaranteeing their success. Still, cinecamera-ready copy, what made the novels of Graham Greene and Eric Ambler so memorably filmable, certainly doesn't hurt, and Frank Frost delivers this in spades, laced with a sly and attractive line in allusion and parody. "Dead Philadelphians" is written in wonderfully taut, flexible prose: fast-moving, not a word wasted, always conscious of rhythm, powerfully evocative. Another factor contributing to the remarkable success of this first novel is the gritty and physical accuracy of detail on everything from prison life to Greek honor feuds, Berlin skinheads and the polite hypocrisies of Zurich bankers. The result is a compulsive page-turner that kept us up till the small hours. Welcome to an exciting new thriller writer.
THE LAZARUS RUMBA; By Ernesto Mestre; Picador USA: 488 pp., $27.50
"The Lazarus Rumba" is a wonderful first novel of literary indulgence, lusty digression and vulgar excursion worthy of our best-known Latin American fabulists. With a fresh imagination and a command of the mischief words can create, Ernesto Mestre deals with deadly serious themes even as his style draws on fable and fancy.
The story's contours curve back to early Batista years, sweep deep into the Castro regime and follow the episodic lives of Alicia; her husband Julio, a comrade of Fidel's in the Sierra Maestra and afterward opposed to the regime, beliefs for which he dies; her incestuous trapeze artist twin cousins Hector and Juanito; El Rubio, the increasingly obscene police chief of Guantanamo City who imprisons Alicia for, among other crimes, trafficking in Lewis Carroll; Atila, a blue-plumed bisexual rooster who lives to 100 and who listened to Verdi operas and the tender verses of Jose Marti as a young cock; Alicia's falcon-legged bathtub, carried cross-country a few times, once used by Fidel during the revolution as he reread Dostoevsky; Gonzalo, a padre to whom God complains, "Am I a handyman? . . . Someone to tighten every leaky tear duct, unstop every clogged heart, straighten every crossed nerve . . . free of charge, a gift?"; and many more whose entrances and exits are so natural that rather than crowd the stage, they simply give it more color. It is Mestre's inventive extravagance that sets this book apart from others, whether it's El Rubio's supper menu (pork brains au beurre noir, veal hearts stuffed with coconut shavings), his 900-year-old bull mastiff or the recipe for warding off death (17 scorpions fried in corn oil with slivers of bonest root) or a father come back from the dead to visit the living: "No one ever thinks to furnish the dead with a nice pair of sunglasses, but all this glorious light does really get annoying after a while." At one point a record of Beethoven endlessly skips on the phonograph: "O, if Beethoven knew what a marvelous rumba he had wedged between two notes!"
Full of both hetero- and homo-eroticism--far more the latter than the former--"The Lazarus Rumba" bristles with edgy lasciviousness and nourishing gusto. Readers frustrated over the years at the poor selection of anti-Castro fiction can now claim "The Lazarus Rumba" as the great gusano novel.
CLOSE RANGE; Wyoming Stories; By Annie Proulx; Scribner: 286 pp., $25