Bantam Books -- $23.95
In typical Tom Robbins fashion, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas shoves a jade-tipped enema up deep into the corporate whitewash of mainstream America. Writing in second person, Robbins craftily exploits your trust by casting you as Phillipino-American stockbroker Gwendolyn Mati and making you a puppet of his lusty whims. In addition to having just lost your job to a Dow Jones nosedive, you just experienced the most incredible orgasm of your life at the hands of a somewhat repulsive man (played by Robbins) who suggests, "What I'd really like to do is get into your pants."
Robbins does get into your little panties with this narrative gimmick. His self-fashioned guru who appears in his works delivers the message that corporate America, which includes you, has lived the past twenty years behind a facade of margin buying, underplaying the national debt, and worshipping an economic mythology far more bizarre than Robbins's own quirky tribal religious tennets.. In Half Asleep, Robbins kicks you hard in the ass and delivers an ultimatum: either get out now or pay, and pay, and pay....
Fans of the pontificating Robbins will enjoy the requisite dose of Western cultural critique-always delivered with a caustic wit-and his characterization of you, his most believable "lost and searching" character yet. And at long last, his spooging guru character is finally tamed when he admits that he spouts off too much, but not before he tells you you're the best piece of ass in Seattle. Loaded with the usual variety of psychedelics, world music references, and slams on the WASP tradition, Half Asleep is well worth the read.
Simon & Schuster -- $24
Closing Time, Joseph Heller's sequel to Catch-22, reflects a pandering, vapid effort to restate what has already been overstated. Valiant attempts at satire are sabotaged not by faulty writing but by the story itself: taking the war away from protagonist Yossarian neutralizes his famous existential struggle against the absurd. He was a heroic figure in Catch-22 because he dealt with the insanity of a "popular" war, while in Closing Time he tries to deal with an unpopular society, one every fruit-selling huckster already knows is decaying. As a result, Yossarian is reduced to nothing more than a smart-assed old man.
Other familiar characters from Catch-22 that show up in Closing Time either don't escape the second dimension, or just aren't believable, rendering the dialogue labored and painful. The few laughs that are produced are prompted more by the recognition of Heller's style than by the plot itself.
Closing Time will endear itself to readers who enjoy sequels for the insider jokes. But Heller's inability to follow up his one-hit wonder betrays itself in his retreat to numerous allusions to Catch-22. The only redeeming quality of Closing Time is that Yossarian lives at the end.
Chronicle Books -- $17.95 each/ $52 set
Remember the enchanted days of eating open-faced peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while engulfing yourself in wondersome picture books? The pages of Nick Bantock's three Trilogy books, a romantic mystery series, will shuttle you back to those shiny days with their striking narrating art.
The book's new-agey plot is charted through the detailed correspondences of Sabine and Griffin, two artistes deeply committed to each other through supernatural circumstances. From her South Pacific home, Sabine has recurring visions of the creation of Griffin's art in London. A stamp artist herself, Sabine eventually contacts the "artist of her dreams" and, like a true nut-case, invites him under her umbrella of fawning.
The plot develops through Sabine's Notebook and The Golden Mean as the two lovers attempt to cross paths. Sabine travels to London only to find Griffin gone, traveling the continent and Mediterranean. His voyage is given a surreal twist as he discovers that he traveling back in time and through civilizations in which he spent previous lives. And as you wince at the cheeziness of the story, the bond between the two intensifies.
Though any book with such a ridiculous plot and with characters with hokey names like Sabine and Griffin would normally render itself prone to endless Melvin taunting, Bantock's work actually commands some of the hushed respect that seeing Michelangelo's fat nudies in a museum does. Each page represents a postcard or letter, supposedly illustrated by the artists' characters, which is unique in style and handwriting. The envelopes open to reveal folded letters and the postcards are gorgeous pieces of art. Bantock also has a sharp talent for character development, and his art seduces the reader into the fanciful world of his love story. His beautiful artistry even makes up for the overweening sentiment and silly new age motifs that pervade the series.
Melvin Tip: To capture the yearning and wistfullness of Bantock's work, we suggest listening to the dreamy arias of Enya while turning the book's pages.