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Originally published Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Books in brief

This week: "Damned If I Do," "The Power Game" and "A Time of Angels."

"Damned If I Do"
by Percival Everett
Graywolf Press, 204 pp., $15

Percival Everett's latest short-story collection, "Damned If I Do," will have you chuckling slyly in your seat long before the plane takes off.

A reluctant messiah can fix anything from your cranky wife's foot massager to sexual-identity crises. A romance novelist spends most of his time trying not to sell his jalopy of a truck to the movie industry. Characters have names like Loomis Rump, Yeahbutt and Randall Randall.

These stories approach life with aplomb, satire, sadness and grace — and they inhabit an American reality bound by fishing, trucks and wildlife. What makes Everett's prose stand out from others in high literary circles is how its intense intellect is harnessed by a playful and grounded aesthetic.

He retells the children's fable "The Fisherman's Tale" with noted mathematician Alan Turing (think the famous Turing test) talking to a fish about his marital problems. What looks at first to be a high-falutin' discussion of semiotics turns into a cat's cradle string story, complete with double helix.

The story of a kid whose family is eaten by a tiger at the circus hits us straight between every child's fantasy and a realization that this tiger means something else, and Everett has taken us yet again where we did not expect to go.

Everett's tales also manage to convey the view of the outsider without asking for pity or exotic categorization. A story about a man committed to an insane asylum and trying to escape is not a political diatribe for better mental-health care; the narrative of a government official trying to get a signature from an old woman who keeps shooting at him because he's black is not advocating any sort of societal reform.

Yet Everett makes his point because the characters are particular in their humanness and precise in their humor. When a young black musician buys a truck with the Southern Confederate flag on it and it becomes a new movement, you think only in America — and only by someone as deft with language as Everett.

Bring this book with you during your travels in the new year. The ride will go by in a snap.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Aoki


"The Power Game"
by Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Public Affairs, 247 pp., $25

In "All the President's Men," Bob Woodward tells a reluctant and evasive Deep Throat, "I need to know what you know." It's what I thought while reading Joseph Nye's debut novel, "The Power Game."

Nye is the dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a former assistant secretary of defense in the first Clinton administration. He's written big, wonky books about power: "Soft Power," "American Power" and "Bound to Lead."

He knows a lot, in other words, but here he wasn't telling me much I didn't know. Or want to know.

The novel begins in D.C. in the near-future (I'm guessing 2010), with protagonist Peter Cutler fired from the State Department and scape-goated for a diplomatic disaster involving nuclear weapons, terrorism, Pakistan and Iran. Most of the rest of the novel is flashback.

Cutler's father, a minister, teaches him fly-fishing. (Yeah, but in Maine.) At Princeton, Cutler makes two friends — a brawny Montana pragmatist named Jim and a brainy Jewish idealist named Abe — which, you see, represent his two life choices. Cutler initially takes the Abe path, marries, has children, but he is drawn into the messy world of politics by Jim when they help elect a Montana senator, Wayne Kent, president of the United States.

Over his wife's objections, Cutler becomes undersecretary of state, where he butts heads with Joe Locarca of the Defense Department. These petty turf battles — with Cutler initially out-maneuvered, then on the offensive — are the most interesting and "insidery" part of the novel, but the book's heavy-handed moral lies elsewhere: Power corrupts. Cutler misses his son's ball game and has an affair. (Side note: There's nothing less hot than a bureaucrat writing a sex scene. It could replace cold showers.)

"The Power Game" is easy to read, and Nye tosses in a couple of good lines, but overall his characters are too one-dimensional and cartoony, while Peter Cutler gets dumb fast. To paraphrase another line from "All the President's Men": "The truth is this guy isn't that smart, and things got out of hand." The line could apply to Nye, and his leap into literature as well.

Reviewed by Erik Lundegaard

"A Time of Angels"
by Patricia Schonstein
Morrow, 223 pp., $24.95

Patricia Schonstein ("Skyline"), though not widely known in the U.S., has been long-listed for the International Impac Dublin Literary award. Her second novel, "A Time of Angels," is a slim volume, mystical and full of fantasy, with aromas of Italian cooking wafting from its pages. Echoing her own background, she sets the story in the Italian-Jewish community of Cape Town, South Africa.

Primo Verona, a clairvoyant and a magician much in demand, lives blissfully with his beautiful wife, Beatrice. A close friend, Pasquale Benvenuto, runs a bar-cum-deli nearby and is renowned for his salami and fruited breads. The two men often share evenings discussing philosophical questions that concern the nature of good and evil and whether God really exists.

One day while Primo is away, Beatrice leaves him for Pasquale, her former lover. Primo feels a deep sense of betrayal and sinks into depression. He prepares two spells to ruin Pasquale's culinary skills but, being incapable of real malice, doesn't activate them.

Eventually, in an attempt to win Beatrice back, Primo uses an incantation. A slight misalignment in the coordinates, an unfortunate turn of events, brings the Devil to his doorstep. They form an alliance and soon Pasquale's salami develops a sour note and his breads acquire a bitter taste. Verging on a breakdown, Pasquale closes his shop, falls ill and begins to mistreat Beatrice. Primo, at heart a kindly soul, recognizes that his malevolent spells have somehow taken life. He works secretly but is unable to reverse them. In desperation he turns to the Devil. A surprising train of events ensues.

Schonstein artfully weaves in vivid descriptions, colorful minor characters, and intriguing subplots into her narrative, further enhancing the time and place in which the story unfolds. A minor shortcoming is that Beatrice is shown mainly through the eyes of the two men. Her nature remains hidden from the reader.

Reviewed by Bharti Kirchner

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