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October 19, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

If Nobody Speaks of

Remarkable Things

A Novel

Jon McGregor

Mariner Books: 288 pp., $13

Jon McGregor published this novel a year ago in England. Nominated for a Man Booker Prize, it disappeared for a time, only to resurface on our shores. This is fast fiction, as fast as the mind works: sentences unfinished, assumed understandings, cultural references. It's what James Joyce and Virginia Woolf (and others less successful) worked to achieve. Then came the age of irony, of story, of word-processed sentences. But this novel's 26-year-old author captures the feeling of a city, a street, a day, an accident -- and a larger world that couldn't care less, the rest of us in parentheses. "So listen," he writes. "Listen, and there is more to hear. The rattle of dustbin lid knocked to the floor. The scrawl and scratch of two hackle-raised cats." Listening is what Jon McGregor does best, with his ear to the keyholes of some 25 apartments on one street. But he can also see inside, way inside. He sees the man with burnt hands who failed to save his wife from a fire and now is raising their 4-year-old daughter. He sees the mother of twin boys. He sees the ex-soldier, the pierced teenagers in love and the girl with square glasses who is our narrator. And he sees the young man in No. 18, scribbling on Polaroids of the neighbors, obsessed with urban archeology and the girl with the square glasses. Each chapter hurtles toward the moment when a car hits one of the twins and the man from No. 18 leaps into the street in a vain attempt to save him. And that doesn't even begin to give away the story. In another age, this would be a book everyone had to read.

Willenbrock

A Novel

Christoph Hein, translated from the German by Philip Boehm

Metropolitan Books: 336 pp., $24

In this novel's first 20 pages, Bernd Willenbrock, used-car salesman in post-Wall Berlin, cheats an artist on a car deal, cheats on his wife, swaggers around town hardly believing his own wealth and good fortune and makes himself generally unlikable to us. He's the new man for a new age, a guy whose clientele, mostly Eastern Europeans, includes Russian gangsters who buy three or four cars at a time. He's destined to fall. But it takes so darned long. A colleague appears from the old days in East Berlin and tells him that another colleague had informed on him. Bernd tries to forget this, but it dogs him. His new world doesn't have informants, but it has criminals, lots of them -- an angry, disenfranchised generation of young Germans who team up with Russian hustlers to steal from the rich. Bernd's country house is broken into. He is attacked. Cars are stolen from his lot. As in a Camus novel, he is a simple man (beware!) who doesn't understand what's happening to him or his world. He feels guilty, but he doesn't know why. "You Germans always keep your eyes fixed on the present," a Russian client tells him. For Bernd it's not working. He slides into a life of helpless paranoia, no different from the life he might have lived before the world changed and he became the successful used-car salesman we see today.

Serious Girls

A Novel

Maxine Swann

Picador: 224 pp., $23

Maybe you've never worried that you didn't "have a core." Maybe you can't remember feeling awkward in your own skin. Maybe you can't remember falling in and out of love. Maya, 16, is the grandchild of a fabulously wealthy socialite who sends her off to a tony girls' boarding school. Roe, also 16, is a poor girl from Georgia at the same school on scholarship. Neither fits in, but once they find each other it doesn't matter. When they're together talking, the novel heats up; the rest is filler. But that includes falling in love for the first time. For Maya, it's an older man in New York who takes her to Paris and eclipses her personality so much that she can't even read a book, because "there's no room for another world." Roe, whose father abused her, finds an abusive boyfriend. They learn to drink and smoke -- and, the hard way, how to hold on to their true selves, how to preserve the core.

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