Book Sums Special Report: C.D. Payne

Manhole Covers
Mimi Melnick
The MIT Press

The title of this oversized, 250+ page book is deceptive; besides manhole covers, the Melnicks lovingly describe and photograph utility, sewer, drain, maintenance, and "contemporary" covers. Aficionados of vents and grates are advised to peruse pages 125-148, which showcase in stark black and white stills America's 24 most captivating cast iron drainage fixtures. Mimi's snappy captions, informed by twenty years of manhole research and observation, elucidate hidden meanings in the covers' designs and shapes. Why is a small dark bell mysteriously stamped in the center of a San Antonio, Texas street cover? "Telephone cover," Mimi explains, "obviously part of the Bell system."

Mimi's educational yet entertaining introduction provides ample fodder for a raucous round of Trivial Pursuit based solely on manhole covers. This Friday night, stymie your friends by asking them what year the US Department of Commerce began requiring labeling of imported manhole covers. Answer: 1984, of course. Browsing through these thoughtfully posed photos of America's favorite manhole covers, one inevitably wonders why the Melnicks never pried up one up and peered into the dark depths below. Obviously, Bob hasn't the courage to capture on film the scary, fire-breathing monsters that reign over the hellish labyrinths that are America's sewer systems.

Charles Bukowski
Black Sparrow Press

Kurt Vonnegut once said that we have to be suspicious of anyone who releases more than one book a year. Pulp is Charles Bukowski's fiftieth or so release in about thirty five years, and Kurt Vonnegut is right.

The book's a quick read, which is always welcomed when a book isn't great; and Bukowski's one liner's prove he can still tickle a good guffaw out on his prose. The story charts a few days in the life of Nick Belane, a frequently soused private dick who finds trouble and solves cases, both through no agency of his own. Belane gets wrapped up in a tangled mass of bizarre cases that often pit him against his own clients, among whom are a voluptuous space alien, the French author Celine, and the mysterious Lady Death. Along the way, Belane gets schnockered, rumbles with ruffians, and wallows in existential self-pity like only a Bukowski character can.

Bukowski also uses Belane as a mouthpiece for his own streetwise, ironic wit, which while often funny enough to crunch ribs, is about the only real treat on this book's snack platter. The plot is outlandish to the point of amateurish, and the book's toying with detective novel standards is generally not amusing. In fact, you get the distinct sense after reading Pulp that Bukowski merely churned this out to appease his gullible faux beatnik following and score some easy beer money. You can't blame him, but try his short stories instead.

Rule of the Bone
Russell Banks
Harper Collins

Sailing along on a stream of consciousness, Rule of the Bone tailgates a mohawked fourteen-year-old who's been suckled by MTV and marred by divorce, abuse, and a marijuana fetish. Driven away from his trailer park home by the whims and hijinx of parental alcoholism, the lovable punk hits the road and relates his adventures of emotional and physical survival. His travel takes him around the fizzled towns of up- state New York to an illegal respite in a wealthy couple's summer home and, eventually, into the hands of crunchy cannabis advocate, I-Man. The Rastafarian becomes Bone's bodhisatva and teaches him a spiritual means of counteracting his young angst.

Whether he's shoplifting at Victoria's Secret to win his mother's heart or having his virgin "unit" stroked by his father's obese, middle-aged girlfriend, Bone is more fun to watch than an up-side-down turtle. Banks does a great job of pulling readers' puppet strings to evoke sympathy for all the fourteen year-old lost souls of the world. And above all, there's a moral here for you young readers, as Bone learns that virtue and sanity are possible for even the most maligned little buggers.

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