This Week’s Reads

Danny Wallace, Bruce Murkoff, Elisabeth Robinson, and Mike Sager.

Join Me! By Danny Wallace (Plume, $14)

Later today, I’m going to send a passport-sized photo of myself to a Londoner named Danny Wallace. A typical Englishman, Wallace can’t go without a cup of tea for as long as an afternoon, enjoys Indian food, and wears thick-framed black glasses. He’s also a cult leader. When I send him my photo, I’ll be joining his cult.

Join Me! tells the true story of how Wallace ended up directing a multinational altruistic association called the Karma Army, whose members commit “random acts of kindness” every Friday. It all begins with the legacy of Wallace’s grandfather, whose failed attempt to organize a utopian community inspires the author to unite a thousand good-hearted people in homage to his idealistic forebear.

Wallace’s writing is antic and sincere and altogether difficult not to like. He loves wordplay and comic exaggeration— to him, Inverness International Airport is “more of a cowshed got lucky” than a proper terminal. Much of the book’s humor derives from his reactions to the offbeat people and places he visits in the course of building the Karma Army. He packs a great many memorable characters into Join Me!, including a fellow cult leader, Dennis M. Hope, who seeks to populate the moon with his followers; and a Metallica-loving Scottish minister named Gareth, to whom Wallace devotes an entire, wonderful chapter.

The quest to amass 1,000 joinees is Join Me!‘s plot motor, but two undercurrents give the book its emotional oomph. The sheer number of kind, trusting souls who join the Karma Army, even before they fully understand its purpose, puts the lie to the concept that people are basically closed-minded. At the same time, Wallace’s organizing efforts pre­cipitate a crisis with his girlfriend, Hanne, who gives him an understandable ultimatum: Either choose me or the Army.

This dilemma, and how Wallace resolves it, makes Join Me! much more than a gimmicky tie-in to a wild publicity stunt. Wallace finds real passion in cultivating the Karma Army, and his self-deprecating tone is as desperate for attention and almost as endearing as a frantic little puppy. Whether you see it as participatory journalism or a socio­logical experiment run amok, Join Me! proves something heartening about humanity. As Wallace observes of his followers: “They wanted to do good. . . . They just never had enough of an excuse before.” NEAL SCHINDLER

Danny Wallace will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Fri., March 19.

Waterborne By Bruce Murkoff (Knopf, $24.95)

What saved Bruce Murkoff’s sorry Holly­wood ass? A painting and the love of a good woman. Balding, unsung, pushing 50, the erstwhile screenwriter and detective-show story editor bought art from blue-chip Suzanne Caporael; she married him and offered to support him while he wrote a book. Some six years later he’s a rising artist himself, the most promising 50ish first-time novelist of the year. His debut is both belletrist and hard-boiled—equal parts Guterson poetical epic, Steinbeckish Depression-social-canvas fiction, and Jim Thompson nihilist noir. It begs for a movie option and a place on the lit-seminar syllabus.

Waterborne‘s nominal hero is Filius Poe, a wellborn Midwestern engineer who exorcises the trauma of a watery death in the family via a job devising the Hoover Dam during the early ’30s. He pours himself into it like . . . the punctuated thunder of frothing river water! (Or Murkoff’s rhythmically relentless oratorical prose!) The author’s engineering of Filius’ rather schematic moral universe demands a coglike logical cause for each emotion, and Filius requires a river whose homicidal violence he can thwart and redirect for personal rebirth and the betterment of man. Filius’ fate is cast in cement; alas, so is Filius. Marginally more fleshly is single ma Lena McCardell, an Okie homemaker who ditches her bigamist itinerant-Bible-salesman husband and winds up waitressing at the dam-worker town’s greasy spoon in Boulder City, Nevada. She takes Filius for granite and likes him that way.

But wait! Switch the soundtrack to minor key. In the third corner of Waterborne‘s love triangle, meet bantamweight psycho stalker Lew Beck. Only 60 inches high, no sweetie pie, Lew punched his way out of racist L.A. He’s depraved on account of he’s deprived: Anti-Semites beat him into a life of impulse crime, and upward mobility, from alligator-cage cleaner to dam worker (no cliff could resist his jackhammer head) to gambling-kingpin underboss. Diagrammatically, Lew gets sympathy points for being true-blue to his favorite black hooker and intolerant of racial intolerance.

I like the verbal music of Murkoff’s writing about nature (trout “feed on drifting nymphs that tumble in the gravel rubble”) and macho gizmos. Yet his compressed detective-story stuff is better than his sweaty efforts to make the earth move. David Mamet and Michael Mann could learn something from his dialogue, which makes them sound remote and rococo. Lew reduces a nose to “a honeycomb of mucus. When he yanked the man’s head back, a parabola of blood arced through the air, as if Lew were a magician who’d just pulled a bright red scarf out of his assistant’s mouth.” Cut and print it! TIM APPELO

Bruce Murkoff will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7 p.m. Wed., March 24.

The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters By Elisabeth Robinson (Little, Brown, $23.95)

The epistolary novel pretty much went out of fashion with feather quills and knee breeches. First-time author Elisabeth Robinson attempts to revive it for the Oprah’s Book Club age, creating a work of fiction told entirely in letters—along with the occasional e-mail, fax, and Western Union telegram. Her protagonist, Olivia, is, like Robinson herself, a thirtysomething Midwesterner trying to make it as an independent film producer in L.A. Olivia’s ambition-driven existence is thrown into chaos, however, when her younger sister, Madeline, receives a diagnosis of leukemia just as a long-cherished project, a star-studded retelling of Don Quixote, is finally green-lighted.

Robinson places the book in the late ’90s, which perhaps helps to explain her heroine’s insistence on written correspondence—though e-mail was then hardly the sole province of nerds and scientists, even in those ancient times. Olivia writes to everyone, from everywhere: in transit from her home in L.A.; at her family’s in suburban Ohio; on movie sets in Spain; from business trips to London and New York. She dashes off epistles long and short to friends, family, her sister’s doctors, and even a nonresponsive ex-lover. It’s a tough conceit to pull off, and at times the strain of it splits the reader’s suspension of disbelief at the seams. Still, Robinson has an insider’s tart take on Hollywood mores, and her spot-on recounting of the madness and joy only one’s immediate family can inflict often makes up for the awkward, sometimes stagey setups. Some readers may feel a little manipulated by her Hollywood-ready plot twists, but it’s hard to deny their effect: Hunt Sisters is, in the end, both highly readable and surprisingly resonant. No doubt, the big-screen adaptation isn’t far behind. LEAH GREENBLATT

Scary Monsters and Super freaks: Stories of Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Murder By Mike Sager (Thunder’s Mouth, $15.95)

As the resident investigative reporter for Rolling Stone from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, Mike Sager distilled neo-hard-boiled prose, a nose for the sordid, and a surprisingly empathetic touch into one of the most re­cog­nizable styles in modern journalism. This collection of some of Sager’s most cele­brated pieces, which also includes more recent work from GQ and Esquire (where he is now a writer at large), is both addictively readable and difficult to take in all at once—thanks in both cases to the oft-grimy details Sager deftly parades before us.

Sager’s predilection for the purple occasionally gets the better of him; surely he didn’t need to open the book with both his pieces about porn actors. (“The Devil and John Holmes” was adapted as the Val Kilmer movie Wonderland and also influenced Boogie Nights; “Little Girl Lost” is about the suicide of XXX starlet Savannah). Though he’s been called a cultural critic in the Tom Wolfe vein, you wouldn’t know it from Scary Monsters. “Requiem for a Gangsta,” about late street-rap pioneer Eazy-E, for instance, makes the music secondary to the tawdry biographical details. As long as Eazy had several illegitimate children, died of AIDS, and left behind a messy estate, he and his groundbreaking ’80s rap group, N.W.A., could just as well have been stockbrokers.

What separates Sager from your typical ambulance chaser with a mini–cassette recorder and a deadline, though, is a journalistic sweep that moves things along swiftly but also gathers up details like dust. At times, his narrative devices are so clockwork-tight they’re almost comical: Two-thirds of the way through most pieces, you’ll find a poignant personal detail that makes the ending, neatly recalling those gruesome details he revealed at the beginning, which become all the more heartrending when he brings them round again.

But when he gets beyond formula, imparting dignity to the lives he chronicles, Sager excels. Nowhere in Scary Monsters is that better demon­strated than “Janet’s World,” a clear-eyed account of the notorious Janet Cooke, a Washington Post reporter whose story of an 8-year-old junkie won a 1981 Pulitzer Prize that Cooke returned two days later after confessing that she’d faked the story. (She was the Jayson Blair of her day.) The New Journalists whom Sager emulates may have preached the motto “live the story,” but Sager actually did live this one—he was Cooke’s Post colleague, as well as her lover and confidant, around the time of the incident. Like the rest of this collection, “Janet’s World” deals with ordinary people driven to extreme circumstances, and the fallout of their actions. Here Sager writes about himself as unsparingly, and ultimately insightfully, as he does everyone else. MICHAELANGELO MATOS