Feature

Spring fiction: Serious fun from ambitious novelists

<em>Nobody Move </em>by Denis Johnson; <em>How to Sell </em>by Clancy Martin; <em>The Little Stranger</em> by Sarah Waters; <em>The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet</em> by Reif Larsen; <em>Pleas

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 196 pages, $23) The award-winning literary novelist Denis Johnson turns out to be “marvelously fluent in noir,” said Jess Walter in The Boston Globe. His “fast, funny” follow-up to the mammoth Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke concerns not much beyond a femme fatale and “one guy who owes another guy money.” But its rat-a-tat sentences “hum with caustic humor,” and readers will be unable to resist its headlong pull as its “cast of losers, louts, and toughs cheat, shoot, and exploit one another into fast-talking oblivion.” Johnson’s unconventional ending actually “feels like a cheat” at first, said Chauncey Mabe in the South Florida Sun Sentinel. But after a moment’s thought you may appreciate that, too. It “cleverly turns the story inside out,” enlarging our understanding of the characters—“and, dare I say, the human condition.”

How to Sell by Clancy Martin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 304 pages, $24) If the characters in Clancy Martin’s “lean and mean” coming-of-age tale seem plucked from your own experience, “you ought to be afraid,” said Benjamin Alsup in Esquire. Martin’s young protagonist is a master hokum-peddler at a Texas jewelry emporium, and once we’ve seen him master his craft and convert his earnings into sex and cocaine, he doesn’t show much capacity for growth at all. With its debauchery, its cunning, and its bite, How to Sell is “the kind of novel” that “goes with you to the beach and then keeps you thinking at night.” Martin, too, is a shape-shifter, said Louisa Thomas in Newsweek. A former jewelry huckster himself, he’s now an associate professor of philosophy, a sometime translator of Nietzsche, and “a wonderful storyteller.” Selling this debut novel “won’t be hard.”

The Little Strangerby Sarah Waters (Riverhead, 463 pages, $26.95) Sarah Waters’ “masterly” new ghost story boldly bends the form to a fresh purpose, said Laura Miller in Salon.com. Set in 1947 in Warwickshire, England, The Little Stranger mines its scares from the collapse of the prewar social order that had cocooned the Ayres family in grandeur and comfort. Waters’ narrator, a modest-born doctor, falls into a “tentative friendship” with the family as their deteriorating country manor is visited by a series of quietly creepy events. These “nibblings of unease” are exquisitely handled; as a reader you feel “the wrongness” of what’s developing “crawl around under your skin.” Yet the doctor’s voice can become wearying, said Mary Ann Gwinn in The Seattle Times. Always levelheaded and weirdly omnipresent, he details the happenings at the house “from a certain remove.” You can trust Waters, though. A “virtuoso,” she knows exactly what she’s up to.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen (Penguin, 374 pages, $27.95) This heavily illustrated debut novel makes “an enchanting first impres­sion,” said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. It’s the story of a “comically precocious 12-year-old boy” on a secret trek from Montana to Washington, D.C., to collect a cartography prize. The boy obsessively maps his world, often in the book’s margins, and addresses the reader in a “break-your-heart mixture of deadpan humor, child-like anxiety, and cerebral enthusiasm” for life’s endless ephemera. Unfortunately, the book’s second half, after slowing to a crawl, “grows unforgivably silly.” It’s a shame, said Kate Saunders in the London Times. Beneath the gimmickry of this unusual book lurks an “at times moving” tale about a boy trying both to escape a family tragedy and to “make sense of the adult world.” Plenty of irksome quirkiness spills from its pages, but “plenty of brilliance” does, too.

Please Step Back by Ben Greenman (Melville House, 254 pages, $16.95)Ben Greenman’s first novel would be a “fantastic” read if it were a set of album liner notes, said Rob Harvilla in The Village Voice. The life chronicle of a Sly Stone­–like pop music genius, it taps the reader’s memory of the real world’s 1960s and ’70s soundtrack to conjure an entire fictional recording career and coax us into enjoying songs that we’re only imagining. The star himself is “a vivid character”; he speaks in a streetwise “torrent of puns and double entendres.” Sadly, after he’s launched his “relentlessly funky” mixed-race band in 1966 San Francisco, he’s given “nowhere to go”—except the gilded hermitage that has swallowed Stone and so many other drug- and fame-addled artists. Greenman, an editor at The New Yorker, is a “lyrical writer” who also has “some fresh things to say” about pop stardom, said Jesse Hamlin in the San Francisco Chronicle. For all the music he’s packed into his debut, though, this book really “never finds its groove.”

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