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First Fiction

SAM THE CAT And Other Stories By Matthew Klam; Random House: 272 pp., $22.95

SWIMMING SWEET ARROW By Maureen Gibbon; Little, Brown: 204 pp., $21.95

CROCODILE SOUP By Julia Darling; Ecco Press: 352 pp., $25

May 21, 2000|MARK ROZZO

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. In "Not This," an unhappy guy heads down to the Jersey shore to get inspired by his brother's perfect married life only to find the couple tortured by a false pregnancy and the mob. In "Linda's Daddy's Loaded," a young husband and his rich wife endure a scary visit from her egomaniacal TV-personality father, who just happens to pay for their comfortable lifestyle. And "Issues I Dealt With in Therapy" exposes all the competitiveness and insecurity at a sprawling East Coast power wedding as its hero delivers a disastrous toast before a tent full of stunned guests: "How come you never call me back anymore, you fat, pusillanimous, popcorn-eating, obsequious, spermy, whoring, curry-barfing ass licker?" 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.

SWIMMING SWEET ARROW By Maureen Gibbon; Little, Brown: 204 pp., $21.95

This briskly erotic first novel is a bit like "Story of O" transplanted to Pennsylvania Dutch country. But unlike Pauline Reage in her classic tale of debasement, Maureen Gibbon suggests that the sexual boundary-pushing of her straight-talking, sympathetic young narrator, Vangie Raybuck, isn't so much about the radical liberation of desire as it is about simply growing up rural, bored and stoned on the cusp of the 1980s. Vangie and her best friend, June Keel, are the kind of high school best friends who share everything, from bong hits to the sight of each other engaged in strenuous activities with their boyfriends, Del and Ray: As the book opens, we're treated to the four of them going at it in the cramped confines of a parked car, and although there's no actual partner-swapping, there's enough sexual claustrophobia to go around. While Vangie gamely bounces through a series of horizon-limiting jobs, her only shelter from mundaneness is supplied by her and Del's increasingly heady explorations. June and Ray, meanwhile, inch closer to marriage, even as June embarks on a very dangerous liaison with Ray's brother, Luke. And, to complete the boxed-in feeling, Vangie can't erase the memories of her own traumatic encounters with both June's and Del's brothers. If it all sounds rather exaggeratedly incestuous, it is. But Gibbon convincingly pinpoints the unembarrassed drives of late teenhood and the curious way that such energetic openings up to love, sex and the world can cause some major shut-downs as well.

CROCODILE SOUP By Julia Darling; Ecco Press: 352 pp., $25

Gert Hardcastle, the hard-luck heroine of Julia Darling's amusing first novel, spends her days in a provincial English archeological institute, cataloging the dusty artifacts and sherds of other peoples' past lives. She has no problem admitting that, at 35, she's become a cellar dweller: "I had burrowed my way down; from lofty university campuses, to archeological digs, to the reading rooms of basement libraries, and finally to a comfortable underworld . . . beneath a municipal museum." But this unexalted berth is the perfect vantage point for examining her own past lives, especially when she begins to receive a series of needy letters from her distant mother, Jean. While Gert tosses Jean's entreaties into the dustbin, she spins out, in a succession of flashbacks, the various episodes of her own girlhood. We see Gert's feckless father disappear to Africa to run a crocodile farm; her twin brother, Frank, turn into a shaved-head cultist; and her mom become increasingly icy, prompting Gert into a series of adolescent misadventures: tying up the neighbor girl, running away to Glasgow, allying herself with a lesbian separatist sect. This rigorous excavation of the past uncovers strong connections to a present, too, in which Gert yearns to run off with Eva, the museum's cafeteria girl. Darling's story of one woman's hapless search for happiness may seem scattered at first, but it eventually builds itself up, like a cabinet of wonders, one curious artifact at a time.

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