Diane Leslie's debut, about a girl with the improbable name of Fleur de Leigh, is a winning evocation of Beverly Hills in the '50s. Amid this gilded wonderland, Fleur is a sort of precocious show-biz Eloise; she is as independent as she is innocent, a condition imposed upon her by her aloof parents: Charmian, the insouciant star of "The Charmian Leigh Radio Mystery Hour" and speaker of fluent Franglais; and Maurice, the producer of the hilariously cruel television game show "Sink or Get Rich." As imposing as this duo is (their self-regard rivals that of Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir), Fleur's upbringing is left to the relative strangers who drift into--and out of--the Leighs' mansion. There's Glendora, the voluptuous nanny whose engagement to a strong silent cop is derailed by Charmian's sexual imperialism; Miss Hoate, another nanny, who is convinced that chenille bedspreads pose a health risk; Gilda, who runs a psychodrama workshop for the pre-pubescent overstimulated youth of Hollywood; and Thea Roy, a legend of the silent era who comes to roost chez Leigh at the end of her life. Leslie reveals a world that's as shiny and as frozen as a game-show host's smile and a little girl who navigates it with heartening savvy.
HAVING EVERYTHING; By John L'Heureux; Atlantic Monthly Press: 230 pp., $24
"Having Everything" is a gracefully written, painfully familiar look at adulthood. The writing is so sharp and clear, in fact, that "Having Everything" is an Andrew Wyeth painting of a novel, in which every gesture, every blade of grass cuts through to some emotion, traveling a distance from skin to heart that could exist only after at least four decades of life, like a complete molecule with all eight rings from its nucleus to its outer shell and no need to bond.
WHEN WE WERE WOLVES; Stories By Jon Billman; Random House: 230 pp., $21.95
These stories, set in the American West (Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota) are not so much about how to live, as many stories are, as about what to put up with and what to refuse. Characters in the collection, dog mushers and firefighters (the author is himself a firefighter) don't have a whole lot of time for navel gazing. They negotiate weather and money and wild animals and Freemasons and Mormons in their daily lives, and with Jon Billman's fast writing, it can be as dizzying as a galactic battle in a "Star Wars" movie. You feel, as you read, that things are being hurled at you, and you can either duck or receive them: "The storm," Billman concludes one story, "rolled eastward across the prairie, onto Faith, with the sound of a thousand horses racing to the river, and the wheat was beaten with hailstones the size of baseballs." It is language, much like Annie Proulx's descriptions of her American West, that really packs it in, that in a single phrase can describe the landscape, culture, history and politics of an area while conveying a smell and perhaps a sense of hopefulness or despair. In "When We Were Wolves," he describes Wyoming as "an orange and atomic promised land," a phrase that speaks to the marrow of the West.
THE GIRLS' GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING; By Melissa Bank; Viking: 274 pp., $23.95
The Age of Innocence is over. Gone are the literal and metaphorical corsets for teenage girls, the guidelines for life, love and whatever else they could elbow their way into. These days, we muddle along, raising ourselves (with the help of Mother's negative example), trying to take our cues, wanting what we're supposed to want, wearing what we're supposed to wear. Rarely falling in love with the right people. Melissa Bank would gag at this earnestness. She gives the muddling through a great deal of style and humor. She makes it seem not so terrible for a girl to make her way to womanhood without guides. Muddling can land a girl in some painful, if instructive, detours from which she must rouse herself, as this collection shows. In the screamingly funny title story, Jane gives in to a friend's advice and buys a book to guide her, a book with the disgusting title of "How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right." Here are some of the principles she finds in this silly book: play hard to get, don't be funny (it indicates the depth of your neediness), wear your hair long, etc. When Robert, somewhere around the fourth date, tells Jane that she reminds him of someone from high school, the buzzer finally goes off. She should trust her instincts. Bank writes like John Cheever but funnier. Give her a few decades to come around to the sorrow of love. In the meantime, prey on her equanimity and vigor.
SYRUP; By Maxx Barry; Viking: 294 pp., $22.95