Dive into these poolside reads

SUN, WATER AND books are natural allies. The beachgoing matron with her copy of War and Peace is a stock figure of suburban mythology, and while few scholars have delved into the mysterious affinities of pools and print, sun worship has long had its literary adherents. Consider only Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Mishima’s Sun and Steel and Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, not to mention lesser offerings such as Waugh’s Island in the Sun and Jamake High-water’s The Sun, He Dies. Shakespeare himself was a member of the tanning tribe, and he paid tribute to the Great Orb when he wrote, “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like The Sun.” Who knows? Had Marx written poolside rather than in the dark recesses of the British Museum, the result might have been Das Tropical, not Das Kapital, and the world might have a sunnier future.

The following books have been sun-tested and pronounced suitable for poolside reading on the dog-day afternoons of August. If you fall asleep, you’ll have to blame the heat, not the writer

The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike (Knopf, $15.95).

This new novel has the familiar topography of Updike country: the characters ranged along a spectrum from mindless hedonism to morbid obsession with death; the provocative musings on religion and art (this time Bach’s fugues, rendered in dizzying detail); the courting of guilt and scandal almost deliberately, to combat the scourge of daily dullness; and the winding tendrils of the famous Updike prose. When nothing is happening in an Updike novel, the reader can just sit back and watch him write. But this book has its share of action, as three smalltown divorcées who just happen to be witches are aroused and then threatened by the arrival of a mysterious stranger with powers of his own. When their ménage à quatre dissolves, the witches vow revenge. Along the way, they divert and unwittingly destroy some of Updike’s best minor characters.

What Men Don’t Tell Women by Roy Blount Jr. (Little, Brown $14.95).

Nothing is harder than telling people why something is funny, so I won’t, mainly because in this case I don’t know. Roy Blount’s work seems so simple on the surface-and there is so much surface-that it shouldn’t be so hilarious. But this collection of his magazine pieces, so ribald, wry, witty and rib-tickling, could pull a snicker out of Alexander Haig. Try “Why Wayne Newton’s is Bigger Than Yours’-it’s about salaries-or “The Lowdown on Southern Hospitality” or “How to Sportswrite Good.” One of Blount’s gems, “Why Not Active People in Beer?” takes the commercialization of sport to its absurd end. Why do swimmers, for instance, have to swim in water? Why not 7-Up? Almaden? Why waste any chance to hawk a product? (“Tracy Caulkins cleft the Gatorade for a new world’s record yesterday”) This book is great for poolside chuckling, and as for just what men don’t tell women.. .well, enjoy the book.

The Dixie Association by Donald Hays (Simon & Schuster, $16.95).

What’s true of baseball is true of baseball books: In a given season, there can be only one champion. This summer, bet on this life-crammed, funny and wise novel about a raunchy hodgepodge of a minor league team and the one season they put it all together. Read it, even if you don’t know first base from left field; it’s about baseball the way (OK, an intemperate comparison) Moby Dick is about whaling. The games happen, batting averages rise and fall, but this brilliant first novel is really a paean to the undying spirit of rebellion that created this country. Picture if you will a team managed by Lefty Marks, a one-armed socialist whose star players are Bullet Bob Turner, an alcoholic knuckleballer; Genghis Mohammed Jr., a fanatical Black Muslim with a fiendish curve ball; Eversole, a massive, silent Cherokee; a couple of Cubans loaned by Fidel Castro; and sundry other oddballs, fading veterans and wild men of various stripes. The narrator is Hog Durham, ex-con and first baseman, who must worry about his parole officer as well as enemy pitchers. Despite this lineup, Hays manages much more than farce. What Hog Durham says of Eversole’s perfect game might be said of this near-perfect book: “It was pure baseball, pure art, and changed nothing but that one night, when a man’s right arm delivered us all for a while from ourselves and the mean world made by men who, in the name of God and money, conspired to keep us at one another’s throats.” If Ken Kesey had written about baseball…well, he doesn’t need to. We’ve got Donald Hays.

Him With His Foot In His Mouth and Other Stories by Saul Bellow (Harper and Row, $15.95).

The word “epiphany’-a moment of sudden self-realization-is usually associated with the work of James Joyce, but it is as much the stock in trade of Saul Bellow. That’s what Bellow’s stories usually turn on: a moment when someone-usually Chica-goan, Jewish, bookish and middle-aged- is drawn into the bustling, confusing world that knows little of art and culture, there to learn who he really is. The title story of this collection, for instance, brings revelation to a narrator with a disastrous habit of blurting out just the wrong thing at the wrong time. His ill-timed candor brings him social and financial ruin, but he has the consolation of knowing and following his nature. Bellow’s characters are scarred by life, but seldom scared; they endure, waiting for moments of clarity.

Conscience Place by Joyce Thompson (Doubleday, $13.95).

As fear of nuclear war increases, we’re seeing a corresponding increase in apocalyptic fiction, that genre which first flowered after the nuclear tests of the Fifties and the Cuban missile crisis. And now comes Conscience Place, the latest word from the post-holocaust school. Conscience Place is a self-contained world created for babies born with horrible genetic mutations after their parents were exposed to nuclear radiation. In The Place, nature has cursed itself; The People, as they are known, are born without limbs or with too many; some are covered with fur, feathers or scales. They are unaware of their plight, since they never see anyone who is normal. But their fragile security is threatened when The Fathers (scientists who oversee The Place) decide to perform experiments on the mutants-all in the interests of society, of course. By stressing the essential humanity of The People, Thompson enlists the reader on the side of her unfortunates.

The Paper Men by William Golding (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $16.95).

Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies, that grim novel of youthful corruption and evil, has tended to overshadow his other work- mercifully in some cases, as with his disappointing Darkness Visible, a softheaded mish-mash of mysticism and radical politics. But when he is good, he’s great. Golding was recently awarded the Nobel Prize almost as an afterthought, as if the committee suddenly realized, twenty years late, that he is indeed a writer of genius. That’s proven again in The Paper Men, and those who know only Lord of the Flies will be pleased to discover Golding’s lighter side in this rambling farce about Wilfred Barclay, an aging novelist pursued by a would-be biographer intent on turning him into one of the great stuffed ghosts of English literature somewhat before his time. The dogged biographer, one Professor Rick L. Tucker, has been commissioned by a wealthy American industrialist to track down Barclay and immortalize him whether he likes it or not. Barclay most definitely does not like it, mainly because he knows that his slipping-down life cannot stand close scrutiny. Incredibly alcoholic and deeply neurotic, Barclay drinks and dodges his way around the world just ahead of his pursuer, meanwhile treating the reader to provocative reflections on the nature of fame and the local vintages, the relationship of talent to success (almost non-existent), and the difficulties of writing when one’s own life is in shambles. Gold-ing’s descriptive gifts have never been put to better use, and his opening scene alone contains more laughs than most entire novels.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (Harper and Row, $15.95).

It’s not often that a philosophical novel succeeds in being a “good read” as well as an Investigation of reality as the author sees it. Too many times, the author’s Big Ideas weigh down his characters, forcing them to become mere mouthpieces for the dialectic. Happily, Kundera avoids that pitfall in this remarkable novel about four people trying to wrest freedom (often defined as sexual variety) from the bureaucratic labyrinth of Czech society in the years following the 1968 Russian invasion. Kundera sees philosophical issues of freedom and predestination, belief and atheism as vital to the way people really live their lives. The “unbearable lightness” of life without the ballast of stable values haunts some of his characters, especially Sabin, whose “lightness” causes her to betray everyone who depends on her. As a sometimes grim, sometimes hilarious testament to human folly, The Unbearable Lightness of Being packs a heavy punch, indeed.

Free Agents by Max Apple (Harper and Row, $14.50).

Max Apple is writing-fiction, I think, but no matter. He’s writing, and if you didn’t catch his other books, Zip and The Orang-ing of America, now is the time to meet one of the most innovative writers going. Apple admits that some of the stories in Free Agents are autobiographical, especially those concerning his children Jessica and Sam, “who are as real as they can be.” Are they ever. “Pizza Time,” Apple’s chronicle of an evening with the kids in one of those nightmarish pizza parlor-electronic arcade-video bars, is a small masterpiece, a moz-zarella-dripping slice of modern life. The story culminates in the father’s desperate attempt to win a kind of psychological Pac-Man and pass on to his children the comforting, pre-video verities of his past: Directions: You are a parent. Your mission is to raise your two children to become reasonably sane, decent, compassionate, capable adults. Then there’s Apple’s tour de force, “Free Agents,” a cutting satire In which the organs of a man’s body, following the me-first trend of contemporary athletes, declare themselves free agents “capable of negotiating with any available bodies.” Another sketch, “Walt and Will,” is a provocative hybrid combining facts about the creation of the Disney empire with imagined dialogue between the Disney brothers-Walt the dreamer and Will the hard-driving business-man. Free Agents is a kaleidoscope of surprising, disturbing, hilarious work.


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