by Mark Helprin

With the fantasy of Alice in Wonderland and grim wit of Catch-22, this magnificent novel celebrates both the immutable power of death and the defiant strength of the human spirit.

Helprin, author of such books as Winter's Tale, tells the story of aesthetics professor Alessandro Giuliani in flashback, as the 74-year-old man trudges on a 43-mile hike he knows may well be his last act. But his whole life, from a youth of reckless mountaineering to service in the Italian Army in World War I, has been spent testing the integrity of life by hurling it against the possibility of death.

And while he never fears dying, his pleasure in surviving is heightened by his enjoyment of life: "Color, miracle, and song were beautifully intertwined, strong enough, always, to ride out the sins of politics and war."

Helprin keeps Alessandro in constant crises during the war—from a firing squad to an attack on an Alpine peak. Yet these unlikely, violent sequences are overlaid with a suggestion that if the universe is arbitrary, it is arbitrarily funny as well as arbitrarily cruel.

Captured a second time, for instance, Alessandro becomes a secretary to an Austrian field marshal who is spending the war leading his cavalry unit cross-country at a furious pace—away from the fighting. Then he sends detailed after-action reports to Vienna, reporting on his troops' heroism.

Alessandro asks, "How, in good conscience, can you ride across the countryside in perfect safety, as if you were on holiday, stopping mainly to swim and eat oysters, while men are crushed and pulverized in the filth of the trenches?"

Answers the marshal: "The object of war is peace, and I have merely thrown out the middle. If everyone did the same, no one would be crushed and pulverized in the filth of the trenches."

Among the other characters Alessandro recalls are Ariane, the nurse with whom he fell madly in love, Guarilia, a harness maker who deserted because he could no longer bear to be away from his children, and a fellow prisoner who liked working in the Austrian stables so he could pursue his amorous feelings for horses.

World War I's surreal brutality gives Helprin (a veteran of Israel's armed forces) an ideal counterpoint to his hero's stubborn life force—which, if not optimism, is an elegant kind of determination. And making Alessandro an Italian lets Helprin speculate on the value of being beyond the fray: "I'm perfectly content to watch the celebrants from here in the dark," Alessandro says of one procession. "Let them go by. We'll lose nothing. To the contrary, and may God forgive us, as they go past and we remain, we'll take from them everything they have."

Helprin waxes sentimental at times. But this is that rare 700-page book in which every syllable is well spent. And it is that rare work that is inspiring yet remains the very model of dignity and intelligence. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $24.95)

by Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich

There is nothing terribly wrong with this first joint effort by the separately celebrated husband (he's the author of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water and The Broken Cord) and wife (Love Medicine and The Beet Queen). But one expects their talents to add up to something more than this uneasy mix of scholarly exegesis and the picaresque—something like Romancing the Stone Meets Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Protagonist Vivian Twostar, who "belongs to the lost tribe of mixed bloods...Irish and Coeur d'Alene and Spanish and Navajo and God knows what else" is an assistant professor of anthropology at Dartmouth. She has an impossible teenage son, a short, fierce, disapproving, terrific grandmother and a lackadaisical approach to her push for tenure.

Vivian might be less lackadaisical but for the fact that any minute she is scheduled to give birth to a daughter, the product of her erstwhile romance with Roger Williams, an immaculately dressed, immaculately groomed, unbearably stuffy professor-poet who is writing an epic poem about Christopher Columbus. This is not a match made in heaven: Whereas Roger is diligent, Vivian is dilatory. He's uncomfortable with closeness, she wants commitment. They do have great sex.

When, in doing her own research on Columbus, Vivian stumbles on apparent fragments from the explorer's diary, she and Roger are hurled into a tumultuous adventure complete with con man, kidnapping, karate and caves.

Erdrich and Dorris ultimately can't decide what this book should be: an adventure romance, a thriller, a discourse on academic responsibility or revisionist history. As a result, they succeed fully at nothing. (HarperCollins, $21.95)

by Ann Rule

David Arnold Brown of Garden Grove, Calif., would head anybody's list of most despicable people. In 1985, Brown, 32, was on his fifth marriage and was also sleeping with his then wife's 16-year-old sister. He talked his 14-year-old daughter by an earlier marriage into murdering his (heavily insured) wife, then turned the daughter in to the police and virtually abandoned her after her conviction.

In 1988, Brown was living high with a new wife—the sister-in-law—and their baby when his still-imprisoned daughter, Cinnamon, realized she had been duped and disclosed the truth behind her stepmother's murder.

Although he was far less attractive than serial killer Ted Bundy (profiled by Rule in The Stranger Beside Me), Brown, like Bundy, had a deadly gift: He was charming, especially to young women. And IK; used his charm to enslave people psychologically.

As true-crime villains go, Brown is compelling—the more so because of meticulous reporting by Rule, an ex-policewoman. The author also has a real affinity for Jay Newell, an original detective on the case, who pursued it long after it was officially closed.

Rule is less skilled as a writer; her prose is Dragnet-style deadpan in places and hyperbolic in others. (The homes of those involved, she writes, "were in a perfectly straight line...almost a fault line of evil.") She also grabs on to images—such as David Brown as a phoenix that self-resurrects from its ashes—and won't let go.

Still, her tale is can't-put-it-down sleazy, and the characters are fascinating, if indecipherable. (An earlier book on the case became a TV movie, Love, Lies and Murder, broadcast this February.) In her afterword, Rule says that she suspects Brown, now serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, "detests women" and that he became the monster he is at least partly because he had "an aggressive mother and a meek father." Would that such monsters were so simple to categorize, so easy to explain away. (Simon and Schuster, $22.95)

by Joe Hyams

On Sept. 2, 1944, 20-year-old Lt. (j.g.) George Bush parachuted from his flaming Avenger torpedo bomber into the Pacific near the Japanese-held island of Chichi Jima, 150 miles north of two Jima. After almost three hours in the choppy water he was rescued by the U.S. submarine Finback. Bush received the Distinguished Flying Cross and flew eight more missions. On Jan. 8, 1945, in Rye, N.Y., he married 19-year-old Barbara Pierce; by September he was a civilian again.

Flight of the Avenger devotes itself to these war-era events in the 41st President's life, digressing only briefly to cover Bush's family background, schooling (Andover, Yale) and postwar career. Readers eager for juicy, Kitty Kelley—ish gossip will find the pickings slim. Not that Hyams's book is entirely without intimate revelations, all of which are herewith capsulized:

Premarital sex: She was 16, Barbara confesses, when George (17) became "the only boy I had ever kissed."

Peeping George: In 1943, a Maryland beach near where Ensign Bush was in pilot training was "a popular place for local girls to sunbathe in the nude...the pilots would try to get a close look at the girls before plopping down on the runway."

Kinky George: Aboard the Finback, after Bush's rescue at sea, was an officer who, on Saturday nights, would display a piece of a girlfriend's dress and, in a cellophane bag, a lock of her hair. The envelope all this was sent in would be passed around for the others to sniff. One participant states that "Bush oohed and aahed with the rest of the men."

Joe Hyams, author of 26 mostly showbiz oriented books, seems to have interviewed anyone who ever served/ went to school/shook hands/corresponded with Bush. Nobody had an unkind word to say, and Hyams, acknowledging the First Couple's cooperation, adds: "[He] helped make his story more vivid...while remaining genuinely modest and self-effacing. Mrs. Bush, who was serene and lovely, as I had anticipated, was equally charming."

The result of all this niceness is a cream-puff portrait of a handsome, well-mannered WASP who served his country bravely and married the WASP next door. Flight of the Avenger offers no insights as to the ambition, drive and tough-weak complexity that led to the White House. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $16.95)

>WOMEN Something like sex, lies and audiotape, Mark Baker's book of interviews with 100 American women on men, work and "what women want" is both provocative and revealing. (Pocket)

PELLUCIDAR Tarzan made Edgar Rice Burroughs famous, but Burroughs also created such protagonists as David Innes, hero of seven novels about the mythical Empire of Pellucidar (this was the third volume). Long before J.R.R. Tolkien created Middle Earth, Burroughs (who wrote these books from 1922 to 1944) was talking about tarags and thags and characters named Hooja the Sly One and Gr-gr-gr. Just the thing for the fantasy novel devotee in search of new frontiers. (Ballantine)

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Sara Nelson,
  • Jeff Brown.