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November 09, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

Walking Into the Night

A Novel

Olaf Olafsson

Pantheon: 266 pp., $23

If you read Olaf Olafsson's last novel, "The Journey Home," you know you are in the hands of a writer who is a master puppeteer, violently pulling the strings of memory, desire and fate, even as the words flow calmly and sensuously from his pen.

"Walking Into the Night" is the story of Christian Benediktsson, for 16 years the butler at San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst's estate. Alternating between the first and third person, Olafsson shows us the strange path of Christian's life: from Denmark to Iceland to New York and finally San Simeon, where he is closer to "the Chief" than perhaps even Marion Davies. In his mind -- and now and then on paper -- Christian writes to the wife and children he left in Iceland so many years ago.

He explains how he fell in love with a Swedish dancer, how he came to regret leaving but how leaving became his identity. Surrounded by the glitter and chaos of Hearst's world, Christian remembers small things about his life in Iceland: the birds, the piano, his daughter's red dress, his own shadow on a white blanket that lay on his son's bed the night he left for New York.

So many memorable novels begin and end with nature: dispassionate, a constant reminder of the cyclical story. In this and in his previous two novels, the author returns to his native Iceland, to wood smoke, snow, kettles and fire. And Christian keeps bits and pieces of his former life in a desk drawer; the vagaries of his human relations pale in comparison to their solidity.

*

What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is in My Store?

A Novel

Bill Talen

The New Press: 152 pp., $21.95

Welcome to the Church of Stop Shopping. "Not-buying is a brave thing to do," Rev. Billy explains. "At first it may induce vertigo, identity weirdness, and a desire for unwanted pregnancy, but most often a new believer will have an abnormal kitsch-acquisition fit. The first response to the break in buying may be a huge sucking sound in your hands -- you want to buy something, anything."

He knows it'll be hard to end this "annihilating addiction": "If we ever have a revolution again, how will we know where and when to do the thing? Boston Harbor is too toxic for tea, the Winter Palace is a tourist haven, and the Berlin Wall is a Web site. And all of the revolutions that ever happened are pixilated on PlayStation."

The managers at Starbucks on New York's Astor Place ("the Bermuda Triangle of retail") and the police who cart him from the Disney Store at Times Square may think he's crazy, but Rev. Billy (who began his active calling while working as the "house manager" at a small church/theater in Hell's Kitchen) and his followers are preaching more than just lifestyle rebellion. They are also protesting the sweatshop labor used by the world's multinational corporations.

It's a funny rant against developers and supermodels and everything that feeds off authentic humanness. But there's a potent, delicious kernel of truth here.

*

What We Lost: Based on a True Story

Dale Peck

Houghton Mifflin: 228 pp., $23

Author Dale Peck relies on his own life to tell this terrifying story of a boy with an abusive mother and a drunken father in 1950s Long Island. In a fit of clarity, Peck's father takes him to his brother's farm, leaving the 12-year-old to the mercy of cows and chores, the cruelties and kindness of farm life. Peck's uncle tells him a few family secrets, but the one that echoes through this book is the presence of a first-born son (by his father and a first wife), also named Dale Peck. The boy shoots up like a determined weed. When he finally, in adulthood, meets his older half-brother, it is the end of one story and the beginning of another. Peck is a brave memoirist. He's got a lot to digest, and he writes about the process with a blessed dignity.

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