THE MONGOLIAN CONSPIRACY
By Rafael Bernal
Translated by Katherine Silver
219 pages. New Directions. $14.95.
Filiberto García, the 60-year-old protagonist of Rafael Bernal’s 1969 novel, is a hired gun for clients who “want people dead and want to keep their own hands clean.” García’s hands get filthy fast. Investigating a rumored assassination plot days before the American president visits Mexico City, García accumulates bodies faster than solid leads. As his superior tells him, “I’d like, once in a while, for you to leave someone alive, someone we can question.” This is the first novel by Bernal, who died in 1972 at 57, to be translated into English, and its blend of political satire and noir intrigue feels contemporary, even if García’s thoughts about women are Paleolithic. García is a gruesome character, by his own admission, but his love for a 25-year-old woman named Marta is somehow touching. The climactic scene, at once complex, chilling and slapstick, is a doozy.
THE ISLE OF YOUTH
By Laura van den Berg
244 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $14.
The men in Laura van den Berg’s confident, gripping stories have abandoned their children, left their wives, been blown up in Antarctic research labs. The women who live with their memories go through a series of remarkably imagined adventures. A woman befriends acrobats in Paris after her husband suddenly leaves her to return home to Connecticut; a group of almost feral young cousins embark on a life of robbery in the Midwest; a woman finds herself trailed and menaced by mysterious figures after she agrees to pose as her twin sister for a week. Ms. van den Berg spins complex plots around a sense of emotional emptiness. Her stories are bursting at the seams, while her characters are lonely to the core. “I heard sirens,” one woman thinks, “but they sounded too far away to believe they would arrive in time to do much good.”
CITY OF NIGHT
By John Rechy
491 pages. Grove Press. $16.
Republished for its 50th anniversary, John Rechy’s autobiographical first novel surveys “a crowded but somehow vastly empty plain” of incidents and people in the life of a hustler on the sexual margins of America’s biggest cities. Mr. Rechy captures the voluble outcasts, preachers and drag queens of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans in their own words. “Life had dealt out their destinies unfairly,” he writes, “and they knew it even while they bragged.” There are Beat rhythms in the book, but Mr. Rechy is more vivid ethnographer than jazzy navel gazer — the Joseph Mitchell of the gay underground. Wistful flashbacks to his childhood in El Paso reinforce the narrator’s dominant mood of feeling anchorless in his own country. In the New York section, he writes: “I stand on 42nd Street and Broadway looking at the sign flashing the news from the Times Tower like a scoreboard: The World is losing.”
RED SKY IN THE MORNING
By Paul Lynch
279 pages. Little, Brown and Company. $25.
A little of Paul Lynch’s Cormac McCarthy impression goes a long way in this novel about Coll Coyle, an Irish homeowner threatened with eviction who flees to America in 1832 after committing murder. A relentless revenge seeker follows him every step of the way. Give Mr. Lynch credit for paying diligent attention to his sentences, but too many of them are portentously overstuffed. Coyle sees “the land concealed in swathes of endless black as if the world had been turned inside out and his eyes strained upon the mute void.” “Rough-stalks of flowered grass purpled faintly the heathered land” and blood and rain flow in “rivulets running crimson towards the maw of the welcoming earth.” By the time the novel — which is a chase story, after all — gathers noticeable steam, readers may be too fatigued to tag along.
Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him
By David Henry and Joe Henry
297 pages. Algonquin. $25.95.
The brothers David and Joe Henry — a screenwriter and songwriter — note early in this book, “At times, both of us have wondered whether Richard Pryor was truly ours to approach.” After deciding they felt “not a racial but a human kinship” to Pryor, they forged ahead, and we should be glad they did. Fans of Pryor when they were growing up outside Akron, Ohio, the Henrys don’t break new ground here, but they do effectively string together the charms and curses of his life: his famously rough childhood in Peoria, Ill.; his early, ill-considered attempt to imitate the friendly style of Bill Cosby; his rough treatment of women (and of himself); his incandescent delivery on stages small and large; and his sad decline. Loving but cleareyed, the book conveys how brilliant and maddening Pryor could be.
A READER’S BOOK OF DAYS
By Tom Nissley
448 pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95.
Tom Nissley, an eight-time champion on the game show “Jeopardy!,” here compiles literary anecdotes — taken from life and fiction — and arranges them in a daily chronology. The entry for Feb. 15, for example, tells us that Cecily Fairfield adopted the pen name Rebecca West on that day in 1912, and that J. D. Salinger set sail as a member of the entertainment staff on a cruise ship in 1941. On May 12, 1961, Aldous Huxley’s home was destroyed in a fire (among the few things spared was the firewood). On July 5, 1925, Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald met for “a disastrous tea” in Paris. Nothing even loosely ties this material together, and the selections can seem extremely arbitrary, but such quibbles will matter not a whit to bookish types, who can gleefully get lost in these weeds.