Over the course of nine novels, James Hall has proven himself a writer whose strengths lie in his ability to create intricately conceived plots as well as multilayered depictions of Florida locales and locals. "Rough Draft" relies on his strong sense of the Florida landscape, his ability to set up a dizzying sequence of events and his portraits of some diabolical, truly frightening villains to save a convoluted story of murder, revenge and mayhem. Hall's characters are what hold "Rough Draft" together, keeping interest high when all else fails. And while the good guys and a series of well-drawn minor characters have their moments, it's Hall's villains who mesmerize us. In Hal, an emotionally crippled young man with a peculiarly gruesome method of dispatching his victims, Hall has hit homicidal pay dirt, creating a character as chillingly complex and as grimly comical as anything concocted by Carl Hiassen or Elmore Leonard. By the time Hal meets up with Misty, a twisted young woman with her own reasons for wanting Hannah to suffer, the reader intuitively knows that when good finally does triumph over evil, it will do so in a most grotesque, eccentrically Floridian fashion.
THE ROYAL FAMILY
By William T. Vollmann
Viking: 780 pp., $40
William T. Vollmann is a monster, a monster of talent, ambition and accomplishment. His fictions live in a dream-haunted landscape where the victimizers and victims of history, whether Norsemen, dispossessed Iroquois or addicts and pimps, are colored by Vollmann's vibrant sense of the past's collision with the present. The question that his stories wrestle with has always been one and the same: How did we Americans become who we are? To some, Vollmann has been the American writer to watch. With "The Royal Family," he has certainly arrived. Seeking to do for San Francisco what James Joyce did for Dublin in "Ulysses," Vollmann has written a novel of such sweep, such commanding presence that a reader quickly runs out of praise. It will take time, but gradually readers will turn to this book as an indispensable road map for understanding this place called America.
THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
By Catherine Bush
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 304 pp., $24
Arcadia Hearne, the narrator of Catherine Bush's second novel, might well be called an "anti-heroine." Like many a modern antihero, from Dostoevsky's "underground man" to Sartre's Roquentin, she is not a villain, but merely someone unwilling or unable to act courageously. When we first meet her, she is living in London, working at a small research facility called the Centre for Contemporary War Studies. Although men who chat her up in bars are often shocked, intrigued or excited by what they assume to be her penchant for violence and danger, Arcadia has never yet set foot in a war zone. Her job involves research and analysis of the ways in which wars are--and are not--conducted. Not only is Arcadia concerned about what is going on in the world, she is also driven by a very personal need to understand what she calls "the rules of engagement." Bush's terse, elegant, often sensuous prose draws us swiftly into her protagonist's intelligent yet troubled mind. Her fusion in this novel of the political and the personal is not only ambitious, but compelling and provocative: a thoughtful attempt to examine the nature of love and risk.
SAM THE CAT
And Other Stories
By Matthew Klam
Random House: 272 pp., $22.95
As the title story of Matthew Klam's remarkable debut collection winds down, Sam Beardson--unlucky in lust, rampantly heterosexual and honestly puzzled by his out-of-the-blue attraction to a skinny dude in a country-rock band--concocts a neat solution to his mounting woes: "I'll tell you who I should marry: myself. With my cat Skippy as the mascot. We could sail around the world together." Klam's young, male, preppy, mixed-up and, above all, horny narrators are, by turns, given to acts of calculated selfishness and flights of whimsical self-delusion as they search for love and meaning amid stints at ad agencies, bouts with uncooperative roast chickens and undying memories of long-gone T & A. Klam's prose is an ongoing series of unexpected outbursts, embarrassing insights and oddball revelations rendered in agile sentences that turn on a dime, from sweetness to obscenity, from comedy to cruelty. It's a riveting, honest and unvarnished voice that sounds like no one else's.
Translated from the Latin
by Sarah Ruden
Hackett Publishing: 194 pp., $9.95 paper