This Week's Reads

Jane Smiley, Sherman Alexie, Michael Byers, and Meghan Daum.

Sleepwalker

Jane Smiley is such a breezy natural, a born storyteller, that she could probably write a readable novel in her sleep. Good Faith (Knopf, $26) could be that novel. Its sense of place is palpable, if unstated: somewhere two hours from Manhattan, a backwater abruptly inundated by the speculative real-estate tsunami of the early 1980s. Smiley convincingly sketches the cozy world of real-estate agent Joe Stratford, a small-town schmoe everybody knows because in a small town, everyone knows everyone. We get a feel for the web of friends and family: Joe's high-school sweetheart, who died young, leaving him in a permanent state of surrogate son-in-lawness to her lovely family; his bossily entrepreneurial ex-wife, now cashing in on the nouvelle-cuisine craze; his business partners, each with a cherishable quirk. Just past 40, living in a spare condo, bellying up to a favorite bar and the odd sexual conquest, Joe is a bit like a Richard Ford or Ann Beattie hero, only well- adjusted. Smiley broke hearts with 1987's The Age of Grief, but evidently there's not enough grief left over for Joe: He's pretty darn content. He drifts into an affair with Felicity, the hopelessly married sister of his youthful sweetheart, and into a partnership with a newcomer from New York, Marcus Burns, an ex-IRS agent with a quicksilver tongue and dreams the size of the Great Tulip Bubble. A Pulitzer Prize-winner for A Thousand Acres (1991), Smiley gives an offhand authenticity to all the everyday details of Joe's screwings by Felicity, Burns, and others. She's done her homework on '80s realty scams, and the efficiently described bedroom scenes read like an attempt to rewrite Endless Love with the dial turned down from Hot Youth to Simmering Middle Age. But Marcus is too transparent a scammer, babbling, "It's like everything in the world all of a sudden turned into money." Joe's comeuppance is telegraphed and unsuspenseful. Felicity is faceless, and their acrobatic couplings oddly emotion-free. It's all too drifty, the plot wandering and monotonous. For all the aced details, Faith lacks the real world's drama and the mania that fuels a bubble. The narrative locomotes smoothly but distractedly. It sleepwalks to a foregone conclusion. TIM APPELO Jane Smiley will read at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way N.E., 206-366-3333), 7 p.m. Wed., June 4. Funnyman

Sherman Alexie's new collection of two superb stories (plus seven clinkers) shows what makes him one of Seattle's most appealing writers and also one of our most appalling. In Ten Little Indians (Grove, $24), his subversive bent, anarchic wit, and sympathy for social castoffs casting about for a sense of belonging put him squarely in the center of our dominant pop-cultural tradition, classically defined by The New York Times' Tim Egan as Northwest Noir. Sure, he's a tribal writerand his tribe includes Gus Van Sant, Raymond Carver, Tom Robbins, and David Lynch. Like lots of Northwest Noir auteurs, he's better at attaining privileged moments than at sustaining a shapely story. And in a Northwest tribe dominated by pranksters, he may be the giggliest: As Bill Clinton told him after Alexie razzed him mercilessly on national television, "Sherman, you're fucking funny!" Much of this book is devoted to often-funny repartee; the jibes fly as fast and light as the ball in a Ping-Pong death match. His jokes are serious business. "The two funniest tribes I've ever been around are Indians and Jews," observes one character, "so I guess that says something about the inherent humor of genocide." And yet a joke can be a cheap gimmick that lets the author off too easy. In a weak story about a woman rescued from a Lakeside grad's terror bombing, the rescuer's wife demands, "All right, Mr. Funny! Let's see how long you can go without telling a joke!" He waits seven seconds and says, "About seven seconds." One must admire Alexie's countless bada-bing! moments and deplore themthey often pop the illusion of real life. At his best, in the time-capsule keeper stories "The Search Engine," about a WSU escapee from the Spokane Reservation who finds a forgotten Indian poet in Seattle, and "What You Pawn I Will Redeem," about a homeless Salish alkie questing for cash to get his grandma's regalia from a Pike Place pawn shop, the jokes know their place: to support the fiction, not score a point in a stand-up competition. At times, his comic gift turns his characters into hand puppets. Alexie is almost always fucking funny, but he's fucking great when his characters escape the confines of his comic-monologue shtick and run free. T.A. Sherman Alexie will read at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave., 206-624-6600; tickets $5), 7:30 p.m. Fri., June 6. Mapping The Family Genome

DNA is simple. Family is complicated. In his first novel, Long for This World (Houghton Mifflin, $24), Seattle native Michael Byers' strongest accomplishment is showing how the four members of Seattle's Moss family fit togetherlike DNA strands, like basketball teammates into a larger, enduring "lattice" that can withstand the pressures of midlife crises, teen sex, professional greed, traffic accidents, and medical misconduct. Through it all, the Mosses remain an intact and amazingly healthy organism. Maybe too healthy, since pathology always makes for more interesting reading. The fundamental strength and decency of the Moss family works against Byers' evident craft as a writer. He sets up a lot of foreboding and intimations of disaster during the 1999 height of the dot-com and biotech boom, but you never really believe the members of the Moss family have got any dark impulses to disastrously indulge. After the first shoe drops, the other one is meekly tucked away in its place. Like a scientist dividing a cell in a centrifuge, Byers splits up the narrative perspectives in World among the four members of the Moss family. Working in a lab overlooking Portage Bay, Dr. Henry is a specialist in a genetic disorder that causes children to age prematurely and die by adolescence. When he isolates a second mutation in a surly 17-year-old who has the disease but is showing no symptoms, this discovery looks like a lifesaverand a lucrative biomedical patent that would handily afford a new house and two college tuitions. Moss is eager to implant the protein in the genes of his favorite patient, who's already a teen (i.e., not long for this world). Problem is, untested gene therapy would be unethicaland it might blow the commercial prospects for the AAC32 protein, which might be sold as the ticket to eternal youth. When Henry and his physician wife, Ilse, debate the moral conundrum, World reads like a higher-level Michael Crichton novel. But there aren't any velociraptors or villains or vice; everyone is too well- behaved for that. Ilse's big midlife rebellion is to quit her job as a hospital administrator to found a health clinic in the I.D.don't normal women have affairs in that situation? Henry's daughter Sandra, a high-school hoops star at Garfield, loses her virginity in the backseat of a car, which hardly even seems tawdry (much less exciting), since her boyfriend thoughtfully provides the condoms. And polite younger teen-dweeb son Darren expresses his hormones with midnight joyrides on his mother's Vespawhatever happened to smoking pot and talking back to your parents? Byers' writing is finally like the Moss family itself: eminently fair, reasonable, and intelligent; unenlivened by excess or nastiness. There's too much virtue in his characters, not enough virtuosic characterization. The effect is like driving a nice new Volvo on a nice bump-free tour through Seattle's nice neighborhoods. World is still a serious and engrossing book, but one that would've benefited from some mutation of its own. BRIAN MILLER Michael Byers will read at Elliott Bay Books (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Mon., June 9; and at Parkplace Books (348 Parkplace Center, Kirkland, 425-828-6546, 7 p.m. Wed., June 11. You Go Agro, Girl

Unlike so many in the current crop of literary "It" kids (A Million Little Pieces' James Frey, The Devil Wears Prada's Lauren Weisberger), Meghan Daum can--gasp!--actually write. She proved it first with her remarkably trenchant 2001 collection of essays, My Misspent Youth, and she does it again with her first fiction foray, The Quality of Life Report (Viking, $24.95). Unfortunately, where Youth was a perfectly wrought compilation of autobiographical snippets and vignettes, Life frequently struggles to find its toneis it comic or tragic? Romance or cautionary tale?and loses some of Daum's bittersweet charm along the way. Still, we'd take half-assed Daum any day over skin-deep fashion exposés and randomly Capitalized rehab Ramblings. It seems safe to assume that Daum, who left New York City several years ago for the simpler pleasures of rural Nebraska, is cleaving close to the autobiographical route in her tale of one Lucinda Trout, a 29-year-old Manhattan morning-show correspondent tired of reporting on the state of thong underwear and whether or not brioche is the new bagel. When the rent on her previously controlled apartment suddenly triples, she sees the writing on the wall and decides to create a stringer joband thus a new, more frugal lifestyle for herselfin a fictional Midwestern town called Prairie City, from where she'll periodically submit TV segments to N.Y.C. The windswept-wheat-field, Willa Cather pleasures of the Great Plains prove, of course, to be anything but. What she finds instead are rampant tanning salons, friendly lesbians, and romance with a creek-dipping, meth-snorting father of three (by three different women, no less). A seemingly benign extended vacation in the heartland soon turns into the winter of Lucinda's discontent, complete with botched TV reports, subzero weather, and major boyfriend problems. The Dorothy Parker wit of the novel's first few chapters eventually devolves into a more glum, less bantery place, though it's true a girl can't live on witticisms aloneespecially when the mercury dips below 20 degrees and there's no propane in the basement. Imperfect as it is, Life is admirable for being just as messy, confounding, and uncertain as life, in its lowercase form, can be. And, in the end, just as worthwhile. LEAH GREENBLATT Meghan Daum will read at Elliott Bay Books (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Tues., June 10. info@seattleweekly.com

 
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