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First Fiction

September 07, 2003|Mark Rozzo

And Now You

Can Go

Vendela Vida

Alfred A. Knopf: 196 pp., $19.95

Two thirds of the way into this high-speed novella about a Columbia student named Ellis who has survived a bizarre encounter at gunpoint, we find her taking refuge in a Manhattan bookstore. She's back where the English lit course books are "Middlemarch" and "Vanity Fair." "I clear some shelf space. From the self-help section I grab several copies of 'Women Who Love Too Much,' and I insert them among the nineteenth-century novels. This makes me laugh." There is something equally mischievous about this devourable little book, in which Vendela Vida, the author of the nonfiction "Girls on the Verge," pokes fun at the Oprahfied notion of post-traumatic stress syndrome while offering an astonishingly accomplished literary take on the phenomenon. Ellis, it turns out, is neither a modern heroine in the Victorian mold nor a woman who loves too much. In fact, she's strikingly contemporary and seemingly unable to love at all. She continually frets about her expanding waistline, but she's emotionally anorexic. Instead of being tied down to the manor or her wind-swept desires, she's a free agent in a world typified by wanderlust and disconnects: She lives in New York but grew up in San Francisco. On a whim, she follows her mother, a nurse, on a mission to the Philippines, where she submerges herself in the constant demands and distractions of charity. And, in the end, Ellis seems destined to go live with her best friend -- also recovering from jolting personal events -- in Dublin.

"And Now You Can Go" is a canny title for a book that zigzags along with Ellis -- from place to place and momentary boyfriend to momentary boyfriend -- even when, as is generally the case, she gets nowhere. Her brush with a gun-wielding weirdo in Riverside Park -- which she survives, in part by reciting a Philip Larkin poem to her would-be assailant -- has bumped her into a pattern of one-night stands with a hilarious variety of dudes, from the well-meaning boyfriend whom she dumps to an aspiring poet with considerable ROTC training. Throughout this odd and affecting book, Vida creates the stunning impression that relationships are always provisional, even if the most random human interaction has the power to alter -- or save -- your life.

*

The King's Evil

Will Heinrich

Scribner: 208 pp., $23

Will Heinrich's creepy Gothic tale -- about a guy who wakes up one day to find a strange young boy crashed out on his doorstep -- seems to confirm the adage that hell is other people's children. We never do know who the natural parents are of the kid who calls himself Abel. But Joseph Malderoyce, whose surname is an echo of Heinrich's title, doesn't seem to care. He's moved up north to woodsy Bettley from the big loud nameless city, where he toiled as an unfulfilled lawyer until his wealthy parents died of tuberculosis. Joseph is a well-meaning single sad sack, forever haunted by a long-ago decision -- after visiting a Mondrian retrospective when he was 17 -- to bag the idea of becoming a great painter. Joseph is the perfect embodiment of how the rash notions of adolescence reverberate into middle age. And you begin to get the eerie feeling that the runaway Abel is the menacing undead spirit of Joseph's precocious boyhood self, a restless soul with a teenager's outsized ego and determination to entertain, challenge, ridicule and dominate everyone around him.

And so it goes with Abel, who transforms from sullen mystery to full-blown nightmare, from smudging Joseph's slides (one of his hobbies is looking at stuff under a microscope) to hijacking dinner parties with Voltaire-esque repartee to exploding into obscenity-laced tirades. Abel is so adept at manipulation, threats and tantrums that you begin to suspect that he's Satan and that Joseph is a sure goner. But a still grimmer notion never quite dissipates: that Abel is really just some random hyper-intelligent, very messed-up kid who has wandered into precisely the wrong foster environment. "The King's Evil" is a remarkable fable of maleficence, a kind of Brothers Grimm version of "The Exorcist" in which a guy gets in touch with his inner child at considerable risk.

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