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This month’s hottest reads.
by Tobin Levy

 h, Nabokov, you sly old dog, you cunt, you,” bellows one of the many lecherous protagonists in Nic Kelman’s GIRLS (Little, Brown). A distressingly erotic “paean” to (barely) post-pubescent females, this debut novel is an ensemble of hostile vignettes. A middle-aged CEO has sex with his friend’s teenage daughter. A wealthy businessman in Korea is “reborn” after a tryst with a sixteen-year-old prostitute. And a married father of two spends the night with a college girl who “just maybe, underneath her panties, has a tattoo of a red teddy bear walking in profile on its hind legs.” Like Humbert Humbert, each of Kelman’s amoral anti-heroes craves the feigned innocence and youthful indifference of an underage nymphet. However, the characters’ admissions?interspersed with quotes from Homer’s Iliad and the etymology of words such as ‘cunt’ and ‘cock’?are more angry than apologetic, more pathological than poetic, and paint a brutally seductive picture of some of the most illicit facets of male desire.

Alice Duncan understands the male proclivity toward preteens all-too-well. Although ostracized by her peers for her freakishly adult physique, the long-legged, large-breasted, full-figured eleven-year-old in Lisa Dierbeck‘s psychedelic debut, ONE PILL MAKES YOU SMALLER (Farrar Straus Giroux), is a favorite amongst their fathers. It is a disorienting predicament, especially when set against the free-loving, pill-popping backdrop of 1970s Manhattan counterculture. And Alice has no one to turn to. Her mother fled to Italy, her father is in a mental ward, and her caretaker, Alice’s sixteen-year-old half-sister, is perennially preoccupied with a bag of blow. When Alice is shipped off to art school and finds herself the object of the local drug dealer’s affections, her sinister odyssey through a rabbit hole of sexual awakening begins. What follows is a hauntingly visceral, starkly visual account of shattered innocence that is as emotionally unsettling as it is well worth the trip.

For a lighter excursion and a little erotic relief, pick up DJ Levien‘s latest, SWAGBELLY: A Novel for Today’s Gentleman (Plume). This sex-in-the-city saga finds Elliot Grubman, a middle-aged Harry Goldenblatt (Charlotte’s pudgy paramour) type, in the midst of an afternoon tryst in which he and his lover “fit together, backs arched, like bananas in a bunch.” Elliot is a wry balding Jew. He’s also a newly divorced multi-millionaire and a pornographer?hence the sultry episodic sap?in the throes of a mid-life crisis. His wife has left him for her mountain-climbing instructor, his thirteen-year-old son may convert to Catholicism, and his choice selection of porno-mag models is losing its luster. But all Elliot really wants is a decent life, and his satirical search for happiness is a delightfully caustic romp for those in need of a fast-paced journey with a speedy return.

A relatively calming alternative is Nell Freudenberger‘s highly anticipated debut, LUCKY GIRLS (Ecco). The title story’s publication in the 2001 Debut Fiction issue of The New Yorker led to a nationally publicized bidding war for the then twenty-six-year-old writer’s first book. And LUCKY GIRLS exceeds expectations. The five stories presented exhibit the strength and subtle complexity of a novella, each narrated by women who find themselves in unfamiliar geographical and psychological spaces. “Lucky Girl” is about a young American in Delhi whose five-year affair with a married Indian man ended with his untimely death but resulted in a new, unexpected relationship with his family. In “The Orphan,” a woman and her recently estranged husband travel to Bangkok for a tempestuous, confessional reunion with their children. And in “Letter from the Last Bastion,” a teenage girl chronicles her correspondence with a novelist famous for his army service in Vietnam and recounts her own experience in the foreign terrain of sex and consequences. All of the characters are unsettled in their surroundings. However, there is something familiar, even soothing in their respective anxiety. Freudenberger deftly conveys the intellectual and artistic advantages of dysfunction and its staying power?regardless of how far away one strays from home.

An existential squirrel, a loquacious nine-month-old, and a cerebral peep show provocateur are just some of the unforgettable characters in Nelly Reifler‘s debut collection SEE THROUGH (Simon & Schuster). In the title story, Liz sits behind a glass in a peep show booth transforming herself into different women — Sheena, a repairman’s girlfriend, a “dirty bitch” — for each man who visits. In “Baby,” an infant devastates his mother with obscure commentary on the futility of life. And in “Personal Foundations . . . ” a disillusioned squirrel philosophizes on the injurious nature of self-definitions. With their exacting prose, inventive plots, and vivid depictions of an array of physical and emotional environs, Reifler’s tales brilliantly portray the subtly violent ways in which people?children and adults alike ? ingest mordant realities and incorporate them into their inherently fragile psyches.

Julie Orringer also presents a fiercely beautiful debut with HOW TO BREATHE UNDERWATER (Knopf). It is an inviting collection, with titles that suggest a cool respite from the surface turbulence of daily life. Yet all of Orringer’s characters are submerged in cloudy sorrow. “The Isabel Fish” tells the story of a girl who nearly drowned alongside her brother’s girlfriend. In “Care,” a young drug-addicted aunt is as lost as the missing niece with whom she was entrusted. And in the lead story, “Pilgrim,” a brood of bereaved children torment each other on Thanksgiving Day. Orringer delves into the harrowing rip tides of emotion and circumstance that disturb lives yet enhance survival. Her tales are tough, transcendent and so richly imagined you won’t want to get out.

In THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE (Doubleday), Jonathan Lethem‘s sprawling first novel since Motherless Brooklyn, the author revisits the borough that helped make him famous, but it’s the pre-gentrified Brooklyn of the mid-to-late 70s that he recreates in stunningly melodic?music plays a starring role in this book? detail. Dylan (named after Bob), the central character and sometimes narrator in this tale, is white and, perhaps coincidentally, motherless (she abandons him and his father soon after the story’s beginning). Mingus is black. They are childhood friends and neighbors, and their shared boyhood world?of comic books and superheroes, sidewalk games, graffiti, and rap?is as complex as the social and political climate of the time. As they make their separate, seemingly pre-ordained journeys into the adult world of college and crack, punk rock and prison, Lethem’s brilliantly observed story transcends the old neighborhood to become an epic cultural history of late 20th century America.

And just in case one epic isn’t enough, Joan Didion‘s latest casts an even wider net on a “wearying [west-coast] enigma”. WHERE I WAS FROM (Knopf) explores the history of California in assiduous detail. Although the book starts with the birth of Didion’s great-great-great-great-great grandmother in 1766 and ends with her mother’s death in 2001, Didion devotees may be disappointed to find that, in spite of its title, this is not a traditional memoir. Where one might expect (or even hope) to find piquant, personal revelations, there are in-depth riffs on, for example, California waterways, the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. WHERE I WAS FROM is a superior examination of self through the meticulous dissection of a place whose history, like our own personal histories, is in a constant state of revision.  

?2003 Tobin Levy and Nerve.com.