by Jay McInerney

McInerney, the literary boy wonder who wrote Bright Lights, Big City and followed with the disappointing Ransom and Story of My Life, may yet have a great novel in him. Brightness isn't it, but it is surely headed in the right direction.

A crossbreeding of Tender Is the Night with Bonfire of the Vanities, this ambitious novel parallels the crash of a yuppie couple's marriage and that of the stock market in 1987. McInerney's version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's doomed Nicole and Dick Diver are Corrine and Russell Calloway. He is a rising book editor, and she's a Wall Street stockbroker who volunteers at a soup kitchen. Trouble begins when Russell spearheads an attempted leveraged buy out of his own publishing firm. Corrine tries to act with Russell's greed-is-good program, indulging in heavy shopping sprees, agreeing to a beyond-their-means summer house in the Hamptons and borrowing heavily against their credit cards. But the marriage falters as she discovers that she can only compromise her soul so far.

McInerney seems to have spent the past decade scribbling on napkins all the jokes and apocryphal stories told to him at dinner parties (at a fashion shoot, a model is given a baby to hold as a prop and accidentally drops it). He shoehorns in too many of them.

Still he writes a most felicitous sentence; he's often genuinely funny ("Basically...I think men talk to women so they can sleep with them, and women sleep with men so they can talk with them"); he sees the '80s as a decade of excess and moral bankruptcy that could warp even the straightest straight arrow; he is sentimental enough to believe in the redemptive power of conjugal love; and most important he makes the reader like Corrine and Russell and care about their fate. (Knopf, $23)

by Peter Mayle

If there were a more charming travel book published in the last few years than Mayle's A Year in Provence, consider this a challenge to name it. By comparison the sequel, Toujours Provence, was a bit thin. Now comes a collection of Mayle's columns from GQ that is disturbingly anorectic.

The impetus for the magazine pieces was the author's abiding interest in the spending habits of the rich. "I was curious to know if their little luxuries were actually worth the money. Were they paying for something special or did the real pleasure, the fizz in the veins, come from the giddy feeling of being able to have whatever you want whenever you want it and to hell with the cost?"

A nasty job but someone's got to do it. Too bad it was Mayle. One learns that limousines come equipped with bars, TVs and phones, that keeping a mistress is expensive, that Christmas shopping is a noisome activity.' The author is fitted for $1,300 made-to-order shoes: "Everything is measured, altitude of instep, curve of heel, contours and slopes of the metatarsal range." Barely a paragraph later the new shoes are in hand. Nothing about the shop, the cobbler, the process.

One can only imagine with regret what John McPhee would have done with such a subject. Let's see, $350 shirts, $2,500 hotel stays, $1,000 straw hats—someone was definitely taken for a ride. Might it be Mayle's editor? (Bantam, $20)

by Mary Higgins Clark

There are mystery writers who concoct more sophisticated plots, more realistic settings, more profound characters. But for sheer storytelling power—and breathtaking pace—Clark is without peer.

The author's 10th consecutive page turner focuses on an accused murderer who is herself a victim: Kidnapped at age 2 from her idyllic suburban home then joyously recovered at age 4, Laurie Kenyon is a 21-year-old college student when evidence links her to the death of a popular professor. As Laurie's attorney sister fights to keep her out of jail, a psychiatrist tries to free her memory—and in the process discovers her multiple personalities. This inner drama is matched by an outer threat—the return of Laurie's odious abductor. Now a highly public figure, he can't afford for her to remember. Switching back and forth in narrative, Clark probes his mind and motives while exploring the dangerous ways his victim survived the abuse. There's a love story here too and another, more ordinary villain to track down.

Clark successfully and skillfully juggles all the plot lines. But first-time readers should be alerted: A new Clark requires a clear calendar, a baby-sitter and/or a long flight, because these are tales to be read in one sitting, no interruptions, case closed. (Simon & Schuster, $22)

by Spalding Gray

The monster is finally out—the monster of a novel whose difficult birth Gray described in his hilarious 1990 stage and screen monologue, Monster in a Box.

Actually the monster is more of a brat—one Brewster North, New England WASP, who narrates this vivid and revealing tale of his belated coming to quasi-maturity. One minute you feel for bratty Brewster, Gray's fictional alter ego; the next yon want to punch out his lights. But that's only when you're not laughing at his mostly fruitless attempts to learn how to hang out, relax and take a perfect vacation from his fears.

Burdened with guilt over his disturbed mother's suicide (which he missed because he was on vacation, and not a very good one) and with anxiety that he too is bonkers, Brewster pursues his quest through drug trips, fantasy trips (usually to Bali) and real trips: to India in search of a sex cure, to Houston for a stint with the Alamo Theatre. He tries acting in porn movies and takes up Zen, believing it's in his genes via his grandfather who "did nothing in excess to excess."

Much as he tries, Brewster never sheds his essential WASPness. But he sure can tell a story. It's no wonder that toward the end he's well on the way to becoming, like his creator, a performance artist—if and when he ever really grows up. (Knopf, $22)

by P.J. O'Rourke

In his Rolling Stone stories as well as such previous books as Republican Party Reptile and Parliament of Whores, O'Rourke has gone to considerable lengths to disprove the maxim that there is no such thing as a political conservative with a sense of humor. He seems to protest too much. More to the point, he seems to protest not funny enough. As the self-consciously ironic title of this collection suggests, O'Rourke is a limp and juvenile writer—Hunter S. Thompson's do-gooder twin.

At times, O'Rourke appears to be aiming more at Dave Barry territory, though as a satirist and commentator, O'Rourke can't carry Barry's floppy disk. And as a reporter, he shows a glazed eye and a frat boy's propensity to obsess over beer.

O'Rourke's callow pieces on the Gulf War have a look-Ma-I've-seen-a-gun! quality, reflecting no understanding of the pain—or even the black humor—of war. He describes one Saudi colonel by saying "He looked like a cross between Omar Sharif and Mr. Potato Head." The Kuwaiti Resistance, he says, was "a teenage dream come true. Bad guys invade your neighborhood, and you and your best friends get to stay out late, kill them, skip school and impress girls."

Even with simpler subjects O'Rourke can't wring a laugh out of that perfect sitting duck, Dr. Ruth. Puzzling over her popularity, he is reduced to attacking the people who phone her call-in TV show: "Is life so empty of solace and aid that these poor folk must call up a shrimpy TV personality and wail lamentation via satellite link?"

The liveliest essay is "Hunting the Virtuous—and How to Clean and Skin Them," a vigorous, if iron-handed, attack on liberals, whom O'Rourke seems to confuse with faddists or maybe just infomercial watchers: "Liberal self-obsession is manifested in large doses of quack psychoanalysis, crank spiritualism, insalubrious health fads and helpless self-help seminars."

The book has a redeeming quality: It is only 233 pages long. But it still mainly serves to raise the question, Where is that crusty old William F. Buckley Jr. when you need him? (Atlantic Monthly, $20.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Susan Toepfer,
  • Carol Peace,
  • Ralph Novak.