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CHASING CHE A Motorcycle Journey in Search of the Guevara Legend By Patrick Symmes; Vintage: 302 pp., $13 paper

EVERYTHING IN THIS COUNTRY MUST; A Novella and Two Stories By Colum McCann; Metropolitan Books: 150 pp., $21

PERIOD By Dennis Cooper; Grove Press: 110 pp., $21

FAR FROM RUSSIA A Memoir By Olga Andreyev Carlisle; St. Martin's Press: 192 pp., $22.95

March 05, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

Patrick Symmes is the ideal journalist: He gives you the information clearly and when you need it. He also gives your imagination something poetic to leap from. Following the journey 18-year-old Che Guevara took across Cuba and from the Amazon to the Andes by motorcycle in 1952, Symmes buys a BMW motorcycle, a copy of Che's account of the journey, "Notas de Viage" ("The Motorcycle Diaries" is an English version padded with letters and other notes) and the account of Guevara's companion, Alberto Granado, entitled "Testimony: With El Che Across South America." He ponders at which point Che had the vision of himself and his future that would transform him from a pre-1952 "anti-authoritarian smartass" to a symbol: a "Gandhi with a gun," Symmes calls him, "John Lennon singing 'Give War a Chance.' " In Argentina, where Castro was born, he is called "El Puro," the Pure One. The same could be said of Symmes, who writes with rare equanimity in the face of revolution: the Cuban revolution or the Shining Path's guerrilla war in Peru or mass graves in Argentina. Gusanos (which means worms) was the nickname Che gave to betrayers of the revolution. Symmes dedicates the book to "gusanos everywhere," a hint to readers about where he parts company with Che's belief in the usefulness of violence.

EVERYTHING IN THIS COUNTRY MUST; A Novella and Two Stories By Colum McCann; Metropolitan Books: 150 pp., $21

Colum McCann, who wrote "Songdogs" and "Fishing the Sloe-Black River," captures that peculiar nexus of emotion, hormones, deprivation and political imperative that is foisted on a Northern Irish child coming of age, a set of coordinates that make Holden Caulfield's journey look, as my grandmother used to say, like a comic Valentine. In "Everything In This Country Must," a young girl struggles with her father's fierce fear and hatred of the Protestants when she is attracted to a Protestant soldier. "Hunger Strike," the novella, is the sickening account of a young man's conversion to violence as he embraces the rage that will stay with him all his life. He and his mother wait each day for news of his uncle, his dead father's brother, on a hunger strike in Maze prison. The furious, lonely 13-year-old boy gives up eating for a few days to feel what it's like. There's a glimmer of hope for his future, and it all depends on the power of forgiveness. *

PERIOD By Dennis Cooper; Grove Press: 110 pp., $21

Here are some questions to ask yourself: What do you expect when you read fiction? To be entertained, shocked or educated? How tolerant are you of narrative and language and morality before you put the book down or throw it across the room? We have watched these battles rage over the careers of Robert Mapplethorpe and Marilyn Manson and James Joyce and James Carroll. If the moral majority were to swoop down on new fiction, Dennis Cooper would be a likely candidate. "Period" is the fifth novel in Cooper's cycle of five. The others: "Closer," "Frisk," "Try" and "Guide." The plot (not as you traditionally use the term) revolves around a dead boyfriend, George Miles, more perfect in death than in life. Two friends, Leon and Nate, spy on a third boy, Dagger, a deaf mute who takes notes on them while he watches. There are cult followers of the Goth band Omen, whose members carry out a series of sex crimes on young men. Much of the dialogue is carried on in cyberspace, increasing a hall-of-mirrors effect: You never know quite where you are, in imagination, a movie, a swamp or a notebook. Satan, violence, gay sex and crystal meth: If this doesn't keep a good writer from getting grants, nothing will.

FAR FROM RUSSIA A Memoir By Olga Andreyev Carlisle; St. Martin's Press: 192 pp., $22.95

Olga Carlisle, painter and writer, has the genteel memory of M.F.K. Fisher, though she rarely mentions food. Her writing is perfumed with nostalgia for her childhood in Paris; for family dinners and poems read out loud; for her poet father, Leonid Andreyev; and for the coast of France. This is the story, really, of how she fell in love with her husband, Henry Carlisle (writer and, later, Knopf editor), how she learned his America, the New England coast--Nantucket and New York--and how she traveled in 1959 to Russia and found hope there for the future. Her portraits of New York are from both the art world and the literary world: Acquaintances included Motherwell (her teacher), Rothko, Kline and Pollack; Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. But the finest scenes take place--as they so often do--in the three-room garret on the Seine where she and Henry fell in love.

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