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The Best Books of 1999 | THE BEST FICTION OF 1999

A DANGEROUS FRIEND; By Ward Just; Houghton Mifflin: 256 pp., $25

December 05, 1999

Lou Mathews, a veteran journalist and editor, has written an understated novel that deftly captures the mood of mid-'60s Los Angeles and the waning days of one of its signature subcultures: drag racing. His hero is Fat Charlie, an innocuous busybody who likes to hang out at Van de Kamp's drive-in, where the local racing talent congregates. Charlie doesn't have the chops or the engine to compete for "Legend" status, but he "starts races, holds bets, runs errands and occasionally sells car parts that aren't too difficult to steal." He's a go-between among the regulars at Van de Kamp's: Vaca, an odious wheel chair-bound racing nut; Brody, Vaca's hard-drinking driver; Reinhard, their cool, alimony-owing rival; Lamont, a dopey kid with a crappy home life; and Connie, a sassy, rail-thin girl whom Charlie can't stop thinking about. Like so many tales of this thoroughly mined era, "L.A. Breakdown" moves ineluctably toward both the loss of innocence and the recruitment center: The shadow of Vietnam is, understandably, ever present. But Mathews keeps the reader so firmly focused on horsepower, hand-rubbed black lacquer paint jobs and custom pinstripes that the small epiphanies that unfold here really do sneak up, as surprising and pungent as burning oil.

LOVERS FOR A DAY; New and Collected Stories; By Ivan Klima; Grove Press: 230 pp.; $24

Ivan Klima's latest book, "Lovers for a Day," passes from the early 1960s through the brief radiance of the Prague Spring of 1969 to the bruising disappointment of the following two decades and into the uncertain light of the 1990s. And perhaps it would surprise no one to conclude that the early stories--stories of waiting--are the true gems of the collection, sparkling introductions to yet another Czech genius produced by the crush of Hapsburgs and Stalins.

LOUSE; By David Grand; Arcade: 272 pp., $23.95

This is the astonishingly odd tale of Herman Q. Louse, "future trustee" in the "resort town of G." and valet to Herbert Horatio Blackwell, the resort's visionary creator and Executive Controlling Partner. Control is the key word, as G., a popular casino, is also a hermetic dystopia of surveillance cameras, strict sterilization regimes, pharmaceutical abuse and gray-flannelled attendants with names like Venison, Blurd and, most mysterious, Blank. All of them, like Louse, have been ensnared by gambling debts into a bewilderingly structured--and frighteningly corporate--indentured servitude. Louse's particular duty is injecting Blackwell--known as Poppy--with Librium; like Howard Hughes, Poppy is a former aviation and film pioneer who's now a grizzled invalid loaded with all the options: germ phobia, a paper airplane collection, an Oedipus complex. When Louse is caught humming (an unsanctioned exercise of free will), his debt is increased and he's sent to Lounge 18 SR-5 to blow off steam in total darkness with an unidentifiable woman; she slips Louse a document that pulls him--whoever he actually is--into a conspiracy so twisted it makes "The Prisoner" look tame. David Grand's debut is creepy, poetic and funny; like G., it exerts a hold as undeniable as it is indecipherable.

THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA; By Stendhal; Translated from the French by Richard Howard; Illustrations by Robert Andrew Parker; The Modern Library: 508 pp., $24.95

"The Charterhouse of Parma" has never sparkled in English with such radiance as it does in Richard Howard's new translation. One could say that Howard has removed layers of grime from a masterpiece--except that the effect is more musical than visual. For Stendhal combines Mozart's brio with Mozart's tender pathos, and it is this range that Howard has so masterfully re-created in our language. French, compared to English, has a smaller vocabulary--for our full complement of "glower," "glance" and "glimpse," French has only regarder with an assortment of adverbs that follow it as limp afterthoughts. For our "glow," "glimmer" and "gleam," French has only briller. But where French gains in suppleness and elegance (if not always in concreteness) is in the language of courtliness and the complexity of word order and grammar, and it is this richness that Howard, a prizewinning poet, commands so fully in English and is able to work out with such aristocratic lightness of touch.

ZWILLING'S DREAM; By Ross Feld; Counterpoint: 228 pp.; $25

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