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First Fiction

January 27, 2002|MARK ROZZO

GOOD AS ANY

Stories

By Timothy A. Westmoreland

Harcourt: 276 pp., $24

Straw, the narrator of "Darkening of the World," one of the stories that make up Timothy A. Westmoreland's impressive debut collection, has a curious affliction: He can't sleep because he continually laughs himself awake. His friend Pork, who owns a dachshund named Heidegger, advises him: "You have fallen out of Being.... Being with a capital 'B.'" Westmoreland's short fictions are shaggy-dog stories full of startling, sage-like observations and predicaments that are as improbable as they are deeply familiar. In "Strong at the Broken Places," a dying man embarks on an unusual home improvement project by ripping out his ceiling and jury-rigging a planetarium. "Good as Any" tells of a man and his music-loving English bull terrier, Rose Marie, whom he gets along with better than the various humans in his life. Buckley Miller, the blue-collar New England contractor of "They Have Numbered All My Bones," recalls his first love at Columbia University and his recent ill-fated attempt to sleuth her whereabouts at the Emily Dickinson homestead. And, in "Winter Island," a rural community suffering a drought are surprised to see what look like pigs flying away from a neighbor's failing farm.

Zeroing in on the surreal and the mundane, and as quietly intense as they are exuberant, Westmoreland's stories have novelistic momentum and heft; they're slices of life that, before our eyes, evolve into stirring American landscapes.

*

JUST LIKE BEAUTY

By Lisa Lerner

Farrar, Straus & Giroux:

282 pp., $24

The citizens of Deansville eat Krispee Stix at Just Like Meat Planet restaurants, dance with abandon to the boroonga, listen to the morning pollution report over breakfast and visit gastroenterology salons with alarming frequency. In Deansville, "the boys are too busy comparing the blades of their compact scythes and contestant damage reports, and the girls are saving their romance for Electric Polyrubber Man."

Edie Stein is a 14-year-old Deansville resident gunning to take the crown at the annual Feminine Woman of Conscience Pageant. Her mom is a nightmare stage mother; her dad is a Willy Loman-like topiary peddler. There's a plague of grasshoppers on the loose, and a roving band of boys known as the Blowtorchers are doing unspeakable things to pretty girls. Welcome to the way-out wacky world of "Just Like Beauty," Lisa Lerner's rambunctious first novel, in which poor Edie is forced to run the gantlet from one bizarre in-your-face episode to the next.

Despite Lerner's cleverness, we quickly recognize Deansville's glaring turf as the increasingly over-familiar, dystopian Americana distilled to perfection by fiction writers George Saunders and Donald Antrim. Not that Lerner doesn't have her own devastating take on this semi-futuristic territory. One just wonders how much off-the-wall is enough and if DDT jokes really work in 2002.

And even though Lerner is sly enough to nearly make us care about Edie, "Just Like Beauty's" blaring pageantry rattles the windows: It's like having 50 tap dancers high-stepping across your living room.

*

THE GOD WHO BEGAT A JACKAL

By Nega Mezlekia

Picador USA: 256 pp., $23

Nega Mezlekia left his native Ethiopia in 1983 and chronicled his boyhood there amid upheaval and famine in the widely praised memoir "Notes From the Hyena's Belly." In his first novel, Mezlekia returns to his homeland but goes back even further, to the 18th century, when Ethiopia was still Abyssinia.

This is an Africa rarely glimpsed: not quite colonial and not yet modern. Mezlekia's Abyssinia is both feudal and ancient, pagan and biblical, and it often bears uncomfortable parallels to our own time. His story is about a clandestine affair between a young court entertainer named Gudu, born of slaves but with a precocious flair for language, and Aster, the only daughter of the imperious Count Ashenafi.

Aster is rebellious, beautiful and endowed with strange powers: At age 5, she walked through a solid wall; as a teenager, "she told riddles that only the unborn could unravel, poems that only the dead could compose." Mezlekia chronicles this potentially deadly romance against a backdrop of rebellious vassals, court intrigues, military muscle flexing, Inquisition-inspired intolerance and tantalizing hints about Gudu's actual parentage. As Gudu rises to become a rebel leader against the emperor, and Aster spends her days under house arrest, we're reminded, in Mezlekia's seductive prose, of Herodotus and his credulity-teasing sagas of love, bloodlines and power. "The God Who Begat a Jackal" is a tall tale imbued with documentary detail and the weight of history, and its story lines are as ancient as they are timeless.

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