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HOOKING UP By Tom Wolfe Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 294 pp., $25

GUESS AGAIN Short Stories By Bernard Cooper; Simon & Schuster: 208 pp., $21

THE ROOM LIT BY ROSES A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth By Carole Maso; Counterpoint: 178 pp., $24

November 26, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

HOOKING UP By Tom Wolfe Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 294 pp., $25 Tom Wolfe has his eye on the future in this collection of essays that have appeared in civilization's fanciest magazines. Wolfe's credibility and confidence as a reporter are as unshakable as, say, household products like Ajax and Ivory Soap. He is the very antidote to partisan politics and the journalism thereof. His subjects in these pieces are, for the most part, the hidden geniuses in American culture and science. He makes a reader feel, shucks, proud to be American; with so much discovery and innovation bubbling up beneath our feet, it's a miracle we can stand. Bob Noyce, the "founder of Silicon Valley," is the subject of one essay; sculptor Frederick Hart another; Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, coiner of the term "convergence," another. Wolfe writes about the many mysteries of successive generations, from new forms of necking (bad news: the bases have changed) to the World Wide Web with the humor gun aimed mostly at himself (a graceful way to make moral judgments in the guise of journalism). Youth (physical and intellectual) is the keyhole through which he looks at America. "Old" is the worst insult he can hurl, and he does with a bit too much force at Norman Mailer, John Irving and John Updike for their bad reviews of his novel, "A Man in Full." This is beneath him, but he's only a man, son of God, not God (that would be his ex-partner in general assignment brilliance at New York magazine, Jimmy Breslin). Wolfe is comfortable with change. He is a chronicler of American smugness and its perils even as he rants a bit about American power. Perhaps you can take the boy out of Virginia (where Wolfe was born) but there's a Southern man in these essays warning us not to get "too big for our britches." His britches, we all know, are white, still neatly pressed, despite the many worlds he straddles as bestseller and literary journalist. *

THE ROOM LIT BY ROSES A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth By Carole Maso; Counterpoint: 178 pp., $24

Birth is a sticky self-involved sort of thing. Usually, reading about someone else's experience giving birth is about as appealing as watching a video of the same event. But there's something cleaner about Carole Maso always has been. Even as she creates violently self-involved characters in fiction and writes in a first person as big as the galaxy in her nonfiction, there's something grown up and universal about her prose. An "experimental writer," she might gag at words like "clean" and "grown-up," but it is no small feat to test the forms of fiction, play with the language and still be accessible to a variety of messed up humans. Maso is always making something out of ordinary details, kneading a fact out over dimensions until it is barely recognizable. What better fact to write about than birth? Maso met a man, I think on a plane, had a one-nighter and became pregnant, something which she and her partner of 20 years, Helen, had long longed for--already an extravagant story, which Maso wreathes in indolence. The father of baby Rose is a wonderful memory, no more. The further Maso travels through the pregnancy in this book (which is to say out in space, where words like "career" and "relationships" take on fuzzy meanings), the more her writing is suspended in the liquid amber usually reserved for her prose. And yet she is afraid; afraid at age 42 of losing the baby and afraid of losing her writerly ambition (Maso is a professor of English at Brown University). But her fear is not a whine; it is, again, clean and therefore brave and therefore useful to the rest of us.

GUESS AGAIN Short Stories By Bernard Cooper; Simon & Schuster: 208 pp., $21

In his memoir "Truth Serum," Bernard Cooper unfolded his origami for us, revealing what it means to grow up gay in America. Now he folds it again for his fiction, but the same gentle humor, the same wonder at the variety of directions life can go, lurk in the crevices and secret corners of these stories. Cooper's characters are often people who cannot imagine which way life will carry them. They put one foot in front of the other, not knowing what the future will bring, like the grown son who dresses up in a costume on Halloween just to knock on his estranged father's door. How did I get here? Their writer cradles them through revelation after revelation. In fact, many of his characters can be found in various postures of caring or rejecting. "Between the Sheets," in which a male nurse takes blood for an HIV test from a frightened young man, shows how the grace of caring for someone empowers both players. Sons caring for fathers, gay fathers caring for pregnant daughters: It's an orgy of decency. Did he dream it? Or has Cooper actually seen this world he writes? He's too good a writer to provide us with an obvious answer. How the world should be and how it is meet somewhere in "Guess Again."

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