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First Fiction

NAKED PUEBLO Stories By Mark Jude Poirier; Harmony: 214 pp., $21

PAISLEY GIRL A Novel By Fran Gordon; St. Martin's: 218 pp., $22.95

EDDIE'S BASTARD A Novel By William Kowalski; HarperCollins: 368 pp., $24

October 31, 1999|MARK ROZZO | Mark Rozzo is a contributing writer to Book Review

Two-thirds of the way through this unflappably good-natured novel about the strange history of a western New York family, Billy Mann, a budding teenage writer and the last of the Manns, gets some literary advice from the family doctor: "Forget this fancy formula stuff. Just tell the story." William Kowalski does just that in creating the Manns and Mannville, a tiny hamlet where the doctor is always in and life--in the '70s and '80s, no less--moves at an enviably gentle pace. Still, like most literary small towns, there are enough freaky stories in Mannville--and the Mann household in particular--to fill the Weekly World News. First of all, there's Billy himself, who, in 1970, arrives at the imposing Mann farmhouse in a picnic basket with an unsigned note reading, "Eddie's bastard." Eddie is Eddie Mann, a pilot killed in Vietnam, and so the day-old Billy is taken in by his well-meaning alcoholic Grandpa. The two of them occupy the cavernous house along with various ghosts of Manns past, including Willie Mann, a Civil War vet who, it turns out, made his fortune not by his wits but by unwittingly digging up a trunk filled with gold coins and who left behind a diary full of cracker-barrel wisdom and incriminating details about the family. Billy somehow manages to grow up in this musty, narrative-heavy atmosphere, but the best story of all--the whereabouts of his birth mother--is largely kept at bay by the overwhelming weight of Mann lore and by Billy's concern for a friend's troubling home life. There's a honeyed glow to "Eddie's Bastard," which narrowly avoids sentimentality in this tale about the truth and consequences of knowing who you are.

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