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WINTER RANGE by Claire Davis; Picador: 272 pp., $23
: 4 BLONDES by Candace Bushnell; Atlantic Monthly Press:
246 pp., $24 : ONE GOOD TURN A Natural History of the
Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski; Scribner:
176 pp., $22 : TALES OF FISHING VIRGIN SEAS by Zane
Grey; The Derrydale Press: 216 pp., $19.95


September 03, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

WINTER RANGE by Claire Davis; Picador: 272 pp., $23 The unexpected and unfamiliar are high peaks in the range of literary achievements, particularly in the last decade. Characters surprise by changing; strange landscapes appear; unfamiliar vernacular is translated. "Domestic novel," in these information-hungry times, is one of the worst things a critic can hurl at a writer; diner-talk is out; adjectives like "plain," "workmanlike," "predictable" signify failure. Everyone wants to be surprised.

The setting of "Winter Range," Claire Davis' first novel, does not surprise. Her West, the West of cattle ranching and barbershop conversation, is overly familiar and slightly wooden. All the action, all the transformation, all the insight take place in the hearts and souls (not minds) of her characters. In this she resembles Annie Proulx (who is a little more experienced and therefore original in her handling of the landscape). But Davis, in revealing to us a furious frustrated character, the product of several generations of cattle farming who cannot make the land work for them, vividly teaches her readers something new: Sometimes the land just spits you out like something rotten or like a runt in the litter left to die. Chas, Davis' failed rancher, is a tributary off a river that runs deep in American culture and, like spring water, is always new in the telling, fresh and unexpected every time. When Americans like Chas set out to do something, we expect them to succeed. We especially expect them to conquer the land. When they don't, there's a darn sight more to wonder over.

4 BLONDES by Candace Bushnell; Atlantic Monthly Press: 246 pp., $24

"Janey had no money, but she'd found that was irrelevant as long as she had rich friends and could get rich men." Shallow plot. " 'Harold's on the crapper,' Janey said. . . . 'Last weekend we basically missed a book party because he wouldn't get off the can.' " Shallow characters. Candace Bushnell's four New York women--a slut turned author, a yuppie magazine writer, a desperate wife and a lonely artist--could be a chance for Bushnell to teach us something unexpected about women, but instead she does an odd thing with these characters. She uses them preemptively, with a transparent bitterness, to describe qualities she hates in other women of her generation: too prissy, too judgmental, too dependent, too inexperienced and abusive with authority, too whiny. Like Wendy Wasserstein, one of the founding askers of the question--what's wrong with today's women?--Bushnell could actually have thought something through in this book. Instead, she whines; she fends off criticism of her boringly bad language and tawdry sex stuff. In a magazine, these four stories might have been entertaining. In book form, they're just predictable.

ONE GOOD TURN A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski; Scribner: 176 pp., $22

"An affinity for steel and iron is a gift, like perfect pitch for a musician. These engineers," writes Witold Rybczynski, one of our big thinkers on where and how and why we live the way we live, "had the artist's independence." He is writing here about creators of the steam engine, one of the many unexpected turns this little book makes. Asked by editors at the New York Times Magazine to write an essay on a tool, Rybczynski was flummoxed. First he couldn't come up with one he liked enough and then he couldn't find enough information on the one he chose and then, finally bored silly by the screwdriver, he turned to the screw, which he found more interesting, mechanically and philosophically, thereby flummoxing his editor's desires, no small rebellion for an academic writer. It is a book rich in practical curiosity and academic forbearance. Rybczynski burrows in and gets lost, one indication, of course, that he is the real thing.

TALES OF FISHING VIRGIN SEAS by Zane Grey; The Derrydale Press: 216 pp., $19.95

This is a lovely new edition of Zane Grey's 1925 classic, written after he had made enough money in Hollywood to purchase a three-masted schooner, which he named the Fisherman. Grey took his brother, his son and several friends on a dream of a fishing trip, from Cocos Island to the Galapagos and up the coast of Mexico. They caught tuna and dolphin and rock bass and sailfish and rays and broke several world's fishing records. Grey's writing is unremarkable and even awkward, but his persistent, daily log-like accounting of tussles with big fish and sightings of new islands lull the reader into the rhythm of an expedition--whether it's the rocking of the ship or the making and breaking of camp. It is a fine example of simple writing that allows a reader to turn the next corner with the author, catching the unexpected at eye level, among the finest and most difficult of literary achievements.

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