Sweet Land Stories by E L Doctorow (ABACUS £7.99)
E L Doctorow is the author of grand, sweeping American novels that play games with history and mythology. These five short stories, though, are powerfully compact and direct, with no time in which to pause and extemporise on the state of the nation. It's strong stuff, about characters living on the margins of society, not quite beaten down but aware that every decision has to be the right one - the sort of people you'd find in a Jim Thomson book if he was still writing today. Except for the protagonist of "Jolene: A Life", the teenage girl brought up in care who is left by her husband, then hitchhikes her way around the South working as a stripper, and is beaten, abandoned or in some way let down by every man she meets. She's straight out of a country song.
In the best story, "A House on the Plains", a mother and her teenage son are forced to leave Chicago in a hurry and head west, where they begin a new life and temporarily make a show of joining in with polite society. I can't tell you much more than that it is a twisted, gothic parody of the American ideal of salvation through self-improvement, because it's also a masterpiece of unreliable narration and you need to piece together the clues yourself in order to experience the full impact of its sinister design. "Walter John Harmon" is narrated by a member of a religious cult whose leader runs off with his wife; "Baby Wilson" is about a petty criminal and his delusional, baby-stealing girlfriend; and in "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden" an FBI agent recounts a particularly unpleasant case.
Granta 96: War Zones ed Ian Jack (GRANTA £9.99)
It's one of Granta magazine's charms that, no matter what's on the cover, you never quite know what you'll find inside. But with so much of the world a war zone right now, it's still a surprise to find that this particular issue is so skewed towards fictional disputes, and small-scale domestic disputes at that. A M Homes, an expert chronicler of suburban American dysfunction, takes an episode from her private life and refashions it as the script for "Like an Episode of LA Law". John Burnside describes the psychological warfare waged between a school bully and his victim in "The Limeroom".
There is, though, Ian Jack's introductory piece, occasioned by his daughter's school trip to the battlefields of the Somme, which is about how that calamitous battle made us confront the wasteful stupidity of warfare, so that victory is now always in some way pyrrhic, and "the human cost of wars is what we now choose to remember, as will certainly be the case in Iraq." Which certainly isn't to say that the financial costs are insignificant, as James Buchan makes clear in his sober, even-handed essay "Trident", about the history, current state and likely future of our Cold War-era missile defence system.
Brian Thompson's "Thank God We've Got a Navy" consists of the kind of jolly recollections of national service in the early 1950s that you'll find in any ex-servicemen's association newsletter. But Simon Norfolk's photo-essay about the military's impact on the landscape, and even more so Guy Tillim's about the general elections in the Congo in 2005, are eloquently powerful.
The Uncomfortable Dead by Subcomandante Marcos and Paco Ignacio Taibo II trs Carlos Lopez (SERPENT'S TAIL £7.99)
The odd-numbered chapters in this cacophonous and decidedly odd detective "novel by four hands", are by the enigmatic masked revolutionary leader of the Zapatistas, and feature Elias Contreras, a peasant from Chiapas charged by Marcos himself with the task of investigating a series of missing persons cases, so that the EZLN will have all the necessary facts before writing any accusatory communiqués to the government. Elias narrates much of these chapters himself, but the narrative baton is also passed around among the various soldiers, cooks, footballers and revolutionaries he meets during his travels to form a postmodern and most likely unreliable portrait of the Zapatistas.
The even numbered chapters are by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Mexico's pre-eminent crime writer, and feature his detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, a world-weary PI left lame and one-eyed by all the unusual scrapes in Mexico city that PIT II has put him through. This particular case is set in motion by a series of answerphone messages left by a dead man, about a Mexican taco vendor who has been impersonating Osama bin Laden on behalf of the American secret service.
In an exuberant game of literary consequences, these two narrative strands do converge, and it turns out the plot has to do with the "disappearances" of dissidents during the "dirty war", and that The Uncomfortable Dead is a serious indictment of the Mexican government and officials. But until then, chaos, comedy and craziness reign.
Grayson Perry: Portrait of the artist as a young girl by Wendy Jones (VINTAGE £8.99)
In Portrait of the Artist, Grayson Perry recounts (to Wendy Jones, who has tidied the transcripts of their conversations) his life up to the age of 22, when he began making the peculiar narrative ceramics that won him the Turner Prize in 2003. And we find that he's been consistently engaged in transformative acts of the imagination ever since he was four and his mother had an affair with the milkman. Abandoning the prosaic reality of life near Chelmsford, where his newly installed stepfather turned out to be moody and violent, Perry retreated into an elaborate fantasy world. A world set 100 years into the future and consisting of four warring islands, in which the raffish hero was Perry's teddy bear Alan Measles. Measles would command Perry, the kingdom's chief engineer, to build armaments out of Lego and Airfix kits. And by the time he was eight or nine, Measles was also sending Perry on missions that seemed to require he dress in his sister's clothes, and would invariably result in his internment in a PoW camp.
This fantasy world kept Perry busy until he was 15, after which time the lure of Chelmsford's night life - hanging around the bus shelter, riding motorbikes and going to occasional discos and punk gigs - became irresistible. The bondage games and transvestism continued though.
Fully frank, but never embarrassingly so, Perry is a consistently engaging storyteller with some great stories to tell, a good eye for the period detail of parochial 1970s Britain and an excellent recall of the intricacies and distortions of a child's imagination.
Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs (ATLANTIC £7.99)
Augusten Burrough's career to date is an example of the law of diminishing returns in action. Having written about his unconventional-doesn't-begin-to-describe-it childhood in Running With Scissors, then about his career in advertising and his alcoholism in Dry, then picked over the bones of his life-story in a series of autobiographical essays, Magical Thinking, all that's left for him to write about in this fourth volume is the day-to-day life of a neurotic, hypochondriac, middle-aged memoirist in New York, on holiday, and on a book tour. When, in only the second piece, he copies down verbatim the room service menu of a London hotel he's staying at and tells us that he'll have the bacon sandwich, it might just as easily have been the proverbial shopping list that he's trying to make seem interesting. In the course of the book we'll also get to hear about his collection of sweaters, the problems he had house-training a new dog and the dentistry he's had done. Try writing a parody of the inane blog or column of an utterly self-obsessed urbanite and see if you can come up with a more suitable list of topics.
And yet Burroughs is a good enough writer that he can blithely admit his narcissism, and that he has "large vacant holes where character should be", and still get you to sympathise with him - maybe even like him. His observations about anything other than himself are invariably trite, but his navel-gazing does seem piercing, and there's an emotional pay-off that comes at the end of the best of these essays that makes reading the preamble worthwhile.
We're All in This Together: a novella and stories by Owen King (FABER £7.99)
This is a most satisfying, well-realised and auspicious debut collection, as evidenced by the fact that probably the least notable thing to say about it is that it's by the son of Stephen King. It has a few grotesque and macabre moments, and there's a punchiness to the writing that's also common to the more taut of Stephen King's offerings, but King Jr maps out a territory of his own. Or at least, he trespasses on to the territory of other successful, more "literary" American novelists, such as John Irving and maybe Tom Wolfe, without appearing too self-conscious.
The novella "We're All in This Together", set in Maine around the time of the US Presidential election of 2000, is narrated by a 15-year-old boy engaged in some smear campaigning of his own, in an effort to keep his mother and her new suitor apart. At the same time, his eccentric grandfather is waging war on the paperboy he suspects of sabotage. It's got a light comic touch, convincing relationships, some marvellously eccentric characters and dialogue and, importantly, the political allegory is unforced. "My Second Wife", a trashy but affecting slice of Americana, follows two brothers on a wild road trip to collect the cut-price Jaguar with which a serial killer ran over his victims, with plenty of drug psychosis and dead emus along the way. In "Frozen Animals" a decrepit dentist and two fur-trappers traipse through an icy frontier terrain toward a gruesome and hallucinatory ending. And elsewhere King works in baseball, abortion, circus freaks and snakes to equally good serio-comic affect.Reuse content