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First Fiction

DIAMOND DOGS By Alan Watt; Little, Brown: 246 pp., $23.95

THE COLLAPSIBLE WORLD By Anne N. Marino; W.W. Norton: 174 pp., $22.95

WHERE I'M BOUND By Allen B. Ballard; Simon & Schuster: 318 pp., $24

November 19, 2000|MARK ROZZO

DIAMOND DOGS By Alan Watt; Little, Brown: 246 pp., $23.95 "I wanted to scream like Kurt Cobain, but instead I gave people wedgies." Could there be a better description of the long-standing divide between nerds and jocks? Only Neil Garvin, the high-school football star-narrator at the center of Alan Watt's maelstrom of a novel, can't afford to scream: He's accidentally run over a nerd after a Sunday night rager and, in a panic, stuffed the body in the trunk of his car. The ensuing days are crammed with silence and a tense determination to ward off suspicion. The victim's name is Ian Curtis, and any Joy Division fans out there (Curtis being the band's mopey lead vocalist), will realize that Watt is further underscoring the division between beer-bonging jocks and trenchcoated misfits. But Watt isn't interested in senior year sociology so much as the inner roilings of Neil, who--with help from his father, the Neil Diamond-obsessed sheriff of a small town on the outskirts of Las Vegas--just might get away with murder, even as he seems intent on killing off any hope of his own survival in the post-high school world. He stalks off during practice, sacrificing his shot at a scholarship; he has sex with Ian's little sister, exposing his soul to further corrosion; and, with nothing much left to lose, he begins to unlock the secrets of his mother's long-ago disappearance, which in turn threatens the precious yet perverse lifeline between Neil and his father. Watt, a screenwriter, writes with a lot of punch, turning the conventions of hard-boiled pulp upon the miseries of youth. One can imagine the glorious havoc he could wreak on "Dawson's Creek."

THE COLLAPSIBLE WORLD By Anne N. Marino; W.W. Norton: 174 pp., $22.95

From the outside, Lillie's life looks pretty good: She was brought up in a postcard-like Victorian house in the heart of North Beach, with parents she calls by their first names, Larry and Midge. She's studying to be a cartographer with a cool, paternal guy named Finch who runs a map store and has a tattoo of a globe on his palm. But Lillie's own world, like the curious Victorian globe that provides the title for this streetwise novella, is not as stable as it seems: Lillie doesn't actually make maps so much as merely sell them to annoyingly rich collectors; her sister Nina, who has a genius-level IQ, is a stripper in the Tenderloin; dad, an anesthesiologist, is addicted to the stuff he gives his patients; and mom has decided to take off, leaving absolutely no clue to her whereabouts as the family verges on collapse. This state of precariousness prompts Lillie to seek out security and danger in equal measure, and she finds both in a handsome cop whose idea of a nice date involves a visit to the pistol range. If Anne N. Marino's approach to psychology is a bit thin around the edges, she smartly avoids sweeping conclusions about weird families. Lillie, the would-be cartographer, comes to realize that plotting a course from A to B in real life is trickier than doing it on paper. Like her, we never quite find out where she's going--or where her mother has gone.

WHERE I'M BOUND By Allen B. Ballard; Simon & Schuster: 318 pp., $24

Allen B. Ballard is a professor of history and African studies at State University of New York, Albany, and his debut is billed as the first novel to focus on an African American regiment during the Civil War. The regiment in question is the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry, whose ranks were filled with runaway slaves and which operated up and down the Mississippi Delta, the most hostile territory you could imagine for a black soldier. But Ballard has not written a book solely for military buffs. "Where I'm Bound" is equal parts cinematic (if occasionally over-dramatic) saga, addictive pop page turner and hard-core examination of the institution of slavery in its death throes. Its hero is Joe Duckett, an escaped slave who hooks up with the 3rd Cavalry and rises to the rank of sergeant. Joe's mission as a soldier, however, is far from clear-cut: In addition to suffering the daily miseries of army life (and the horrors of battle, which here resembles guerrilla warfare), Joe is determined to track down his scattered family: Zenobia, his wife, who has embarked on her own freedom exodus with their baby, Cally; Luke, their son, who has been pressed into service by the Confederate Col. Kenworthy, Joe's boyhood rival and also his "Massa"; and Pauline, his sister, who is the guardian of Joe and Zenobia's other daughter and is also the object of Kenworthy's salacious desire. Each strand of this story is a live wire, and Ballard delights in crossing them. But the biggest spark comes from Kenworthy, a man aflame with rage, lust and guilt--a convincing embodiment of slavery's brutality and heartbreak.

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