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May 09, 1999|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

SNOW MAN; By Carolyn Chute; (Harcourt Brace: 244 pp., $23)

Who'se afraid of Carolyn Chute? I am! I am! Someday I will read her novel, "The Beans of Egypt Maine," but I just don't feel strong enough yet. Chute is known as a son-of-a-bitch writer, a describer of cold climates and colder hearts, a looker in the faces of poverty, incest, anger and unfairness. Now I would never willingly sacrifice a book on the altar of Hollywood, but here is one that begs to be a movie: Robert Drummond is a right-wing militia man in Maine, a member of the Snow Men. His mission is to kill first a Republican and then a Democratic senator, but in the process of killing the Republican, he is wounded himself and collapses in the garage of the Democrat, where he has dragged himself, near death. He is rescued by the Democratic senator's daughter and the senator's wife, who hide him in their attic bedroom (it's hot in there). He's part Indian, very gorgeous, in pain, well endowed (Chute says so), full of life and rage against the government for what it has done to working-class people and his own family. Guess what? Both mother and daughter must have him (Papa is signing bills in Washington). The FBI becomes suspicious and surrounds the house. "Snow Man" is a study in risk and necessity: what people will do to get what they need. Outlaws, it seems clear, are always welcome in the arts.

ARITHMETIC; By Todd McEwen; (Jonathan Cape: 186 pp., $17.95)

It's an interesting challenge to re-create the voice of a young child (autobiography or pure fiction, inner teddy bear or alter ego), to get the combination of humor and terror, the wobbly sense of navigating the world with partial information and pure instinct. Joe Lake is 7 years old, growing up in Orange County in the 1950s, which seems pretty amusing in retrospect. His family is forced to move when Disney comes knocking to build the Congo on their property. Still, it's a good year for Joe and his best friend, Fard. They get their favorite teacher, Mrs. Dentyne ("Just thinking about Her made us both quiet. I got sofa feelings") but they also get arithmetic, a subject that baffles and terrifies Joe. His father puts a blackboard in his room so they can work on arithmetic, "which just about wrecked my whole room, like filling it with deadly gas." The voice is delightful, but be forewarned: Not much happens in the novel. This makes it a bit of a tableaux, a bit of a wax museum--charming, full of detail, winsome.

PEOPLE WHO SWEAT; By Robin Chotzinoff; (Harcourt Brace: 204 pp., $22)

She's got a little Dave Barry, a little Ellen Goodman, a little Marion Winik but not a shred of Garrison Keillor or Andy Rooney. Robin Chotzinoff is a journalist who takes a microscope to daily life and finds the ontology that recapitulates the phylogeny. No preaching, no lecturing, a lot of hands-on field work with more wonder and amusement than judgment: That's her style. And she picks her subjects well. This collection of essays, subtitled "The passion for sport, from ultra-marathoners to tree climbers," includes a chapter on Clydesdales (large people who compete in marathons and other athletic events), in which Chotzinoff reprints a line from her own training diary: "Ran five miles. Hated it. Biked twenty. Hated it." "At a free breakfast in the Super 8 motel lobby," she reports on the morning of a marathon, "I learn the difference between eating, which I like, and feeding, which makes my jaws ache." She tries caving ("Live floor. In other words, a cave floor so covered with bugs it seethes"), snowboarding in a camp for wild women, surfing with surfing housewives under the tutelage of Kahuna Bob in San Diego, bowhunting ("I wonder if Mattel will ever get cracking on a Hunting Barbie"), mall walking with the more than 50 Mall Stars and other fringe sports like fly fishing and sumo wrestling. In these pursuits, Chotzinoff has identified a heavenly mind-body equilibrium, a haven of competitive mediocrity, pure fun and childhood dreams.

BELLA TUSCANY; By Frances Mayes; (Broadway Books: 286 pp., $25)

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