This Week's Reads

Perfectly Legal

By David Cay Johnston (Portfolio, $25.95)

To the lexicon of publishing jargon containing such expressive gems as "page-turner" and "bodice ripper," I propose adding the term "blood boiler." The formula for writing a blood boiler is simple: Find an area of public policy fraught with injustice, fraud, and malfeasance—not all that difficult these days—and write about it, taking up one subissue per chapter, so proportioned that by the time the reader has finished his or her bus ride, s/he is experiencing an invigorating pounding of the blood in the temples at the sheer unfairness of it all.

There appears to be one more requirement for a proper blood boiler: Whether lowdown and scurrilous like Michael Moore's Stupid White Men or high-minded and judicious like Joseph Stiglitz's Globalization and Its Discontents, a blood boiler must inculcate a mood of despair, a feeling that the problems enumerated are much too difficult to cope with not only for an individual but for the combined will and intellect of the world's best and brightest.

Such a work is David Cay Johnston's book-length monograph on the inequities of the American tax system. In small doses and restrained by the fine-mesh editorial sieve of his day employer, The New York Times, Cay's reporting on the labyrinthine coils of national fiscal policy are refreshingly pointed and vivid. Unleashed to vent righteous indignation across more than 300 pages, Johnston's description of "the covert campaign to rig our tax system to benefit the superrich—and cheat everybody else" (the book's full subtitle) is as searing as a gasoline explosion and about as useful. Chapter after bite-size chapter hammers away at the theme as seen in every area of tax policy from Social Security withholding to corporate jets, inheritance tax to the alternative minimum tax, executive salary packages to gutting tax enforcement.

If you manage to reach page 305 without a cerebral aneurysm, you'll find 13 pages devoted to Johnston's "conclusions," which boil down to an essential two: Congress should do something about reforming the present system, and we all should pay more attention to tax policy. Am I alone in finding that an insufficient payoff? I have a reform of my own to propose: Congress should pass a law requiring that all authors taking on great public issues propose at least one remedy for each injustice they enumerate. I suspect that, as Ninotchka said of Russians after the Stalin purges, there would be fewer books, but better. ROGER DOWNEY

A gentle SW reminder: Your taxes are due tomorrow, Thurs., April 15.

A Spectacle of Corruption

By David Liss (Random House, $24.95)

David Liss seems to operate under the assumption that a straightforward, hard-boiled detective novel is elevated with a bit of history. He may be right. His formula starts with the return of Benjamin Weaver, the hero from his 2000 Edgar Award–winning debut, A Conspiracy of Paper. A Jew in 18th-century London and a former boxer, Weaver has the key ingredients—toughness and a chronic outsider's perspective—that define the great PI's, from Sam Spade to Spenser. (In the parlance of the day, he's called a "thief-taker.") But in Spectacle, Weaver actually becomes the prime suspect for the murder of a gang leader, a crime that appears to be part of a political conspiracy among Whigs, Tories, and Jacobites. Not your typical Robert B. Parker fare.

Liss frames the first-person novel as Weaver's memoir written 35 years after the 1722 slaying, but Weaver frequently intrudes on his story with explanatory passages about period politics and customs that read like English History 101. These digressions—while necessary to supply the back story of partisan intrigue, London gang conflicts, and the struggles of the destitute—sometimes muddle the progress toward Weaver clearing his name. Not to worry, though. Whenever the book begins to linger too long in pedantic details, Weaver dives into a bloody fistfight or ogles a fair damsel with her "deeply cut bodice [and] . . . expanse of dazzling bosom." (He also takes regular breaks for "dishes of chocolate.")

Liss' characters, especially his villains, may be a bit wooden, but Spectacle is more than your average mystery novel. Liss seems to have hit on a solid formula: sex, violence, and scheming Whigs and Tories. It's like a vitamin-fortified dish of chocolate. PATRICK O'KELLEY

David Liss will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Fri., April 16; and at Seattle Mystery Bookshop (117 Cherry St., 206-587-5737), noon Sat., April 17.

The Epicure's Lament

By Kate Christensen (Doubleday, $23.95)

Hugo Whittier, the endlessly despondent killjoy in Kate Christensen's droll, deadpan third novel, is obsessed with far more than just the culinary arts. In fact, it almost seems wrong to reduce him to that one fixation. Whittier is equally possessed by women and death; and writing isn't far behind.

The 40-year-old former playboy is the sole remaining resident of his childhood home, a stately Hudson River Valley manor, when he is suddenly descended upon first by his brother and then by his estranged wife and her 10-year-old daughter (possibly fathered by him). Writing furiously in his journal as a means of escaping these unwelcome housemates, Whittier reveals that's he's also dying of a rare illness called Buerger's disease. He could perhaps save himself from this terminal sickness if he wanted to, but he'd have to quit smoking, and Whittier has absolutely no plans to do that. In fact, he's looking forward to dying—he just wants to have some good food and get laid a few more times before it happens.

Christensen has a name for this kind of fiction—she calls it "loser lit" and doles it out in Whittier's first-person narration. With his death wish, wandering eye for pretty much every female in and out of his sight line, and complete lack of familial love, Whittier makes a great loser. Yet there's also something quite charming about his methodical, obsessive epicureanism, coupled with his armchair interest in philosophy. And since he's a rich boy living off his spotty past and family fortune, he can afford to spend a lot of time reading and writing in his armchair. (Thus ensconced, he also devises plans to get his brother's mistress to an Atlantic City motel for the weekend, translates Montaigne's "On Solitude," and details his preparation of shrimp Newburg.)

Although Whittier's long tirades can grow tiresome, his dark wit and sarcasm make him pretty hard to hate. Author Christensen is careful not to tip him, or the reader, over the brink into bitterness. In the end, Whittier's courageous pessimism eventually morphs into a strange, canonizing calm. While many flail blindly into a midlife crisis or a permanently broken family, Lament's misanthrope ultimately is more astute. Consequently, as he makes small physical and spiritual recoveries near the close of the book, Whittier even manages to find a little hope. It's the last thing, and perhaps the best thing, you'd expect to find in this erudite and inimical novel. LAURA CASSIDY

The Blue Bowl

By George Minot (Knopf, $24)

An alcoholic, emotionally crippled father. A disaffected son paralyzed by resentment. Patricide. George Minot's debut novel even features a surpassingly unreliable narrator, nudging Bowl into Karamozov territory. Yet unlike Dostoyesvky, who divides his masterwork neatly among three siblings with good reason to kill Papa, Minot spends just about all his time inside one son's head. That particular head is so narcissistically nebbishy, so caterwaulingly convoluted with anger and self-justification, that it almost sucks the air right out of the novel. Fortunately, Minot's writing is often poetic and insightful enough that he breathes life into Bowl's rather anaerobic atmosphere.

In his inveterate black-sheep protagonist, Simon, Minot has created an excruciatingly affecting portrait of "a dying-for-love soul of a motherless boy-man" (his mother was killed, or killed herself, in a car wreck). As we learn from another brother who narrates, Simon spends most of his time furious and stoned, literally tiptoeing around his father and leeching off the rest of the family. Dad, for his part, is not much more than a lumbering hulk of silent stares haunting the novel; he's not much different alive or dead, and his murder turns the focus of Bowl squarely onto Simon, the defendant on trial for the crime. Under the resulting media glare, Simon undergoes a kind of transformation—or perhaps better to say self-deconstruction. This gives Minot occasion for a serious grapple with one of literature's mightiest, albeit dourest, themes: the pained relationship of sons to fathers. In so doing, he uncovers some pretty squirmy truths.

Yet even more than that, Minot gets to show off with his pen. This book is a feast of language; anyone who gets bogged down by purple flights of fancy is best advised to stick with leaner fare. Minot's writing is highfalutin modernist prose that reads like a spaghettified collision of Faulkner, Kerouac, and Franzen. ("Simon woke to the full wide movie screen of summer lettuce canopy, the big old maple's many supple money hands suspended and waving lightly diaphanous green, on the outer layers, darker inside, like inside a big shredded umbrella." You get the idea.) This is a big, ambitious, frustrating novel full of lovely writing that tackles some heavy existential baggage. When it's good, it's good; and when it falters, it's still better than most of what passes for high fiction these days. RICK LEVIN

George Minot will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Mon., April 19.

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