Among Prisoners by Frank Manley

(Coffee House Press) $14.95After reading the first three stories in this collection, I thought I had Manley's number. All three stories feature people who behave stupidly or spout racist or sexist bile. Just the kind of people that educated middle-class readers can feel superior to while getting a vicarious thrill as they read about such crudity. There's the redneck who tries to compliment some Indians by comparing them favorably to black people; the rich white woman who finds herself on a bus talking to a black nurse in the typically unwitting, patronizing, racist way of the liberal; and, of course, the prison guard/former Marine who orders and kills mail-order brides from Asia.

Though all the stories feature lower-class or rural or uneducated people, Manley, to his credit, breaks the pattern after the first three stories and stops inviting us to make fun of them. He uses some awkward narrative devices, like the two rednecks rehearsing for a press conference announcing their sighting of Bigfoot, or the husband and wife who finish each other's sentences that are finishing each other's sentences as they tell a story together (it's not clear to whom) about the husband's Army days. The writing style is inviting when Manley's not encumbered by these devices. The sense of place is powerful (most of the stories are set in Atlanta and environs), and you get the feeling that Manley knows his characters well, painting them in quick, compassionate strokes.

The real standout in this collection is "Thank God Almighty," in which a work-camp prisoner, while trapped on a courthouse roof, is able to expose the corruption of a rural county commissioner. It builds up to a delicious epiphany as the sunset ignites the small town and the prisoner redeems himself. I hope that this is the kind of story we'll see more of in Manley's next collection. DAN TENENBAUM

The Empty Quarter by Sharon Mesmer

(Hanging Loose, 231 Wycoff St., Brooklyn, NY 11217) $13It's a small criticism, but the only thing wrong with Sharon Mesmer's story collection is that it's too short. And yet, these 65 perfect-bound pages present a wider assortment of approaches to storytelling than many fiction writers attempt in a lifetime.

From inventions reminiscent of Donald Barthelme to confessions that would make Rousseau blush, Mesmer swings from fantasy to memory with admirable ease. One story is in the form of a letter to an old friend, related in a conversational style where all of the sentences are questions except for one exclamation and the title: "I Married a Bay City Roller." "As If" is a compendium of egregious similes, from the ridiculous ("white picket fences like Nancy Kerrigan's teeth") to the slimy ("a body hitting the ground like a Hefty bag filled with soup"). In "The Hours of a Transfigured Night," a woman comes to terms with the brutal events that drove her to become a nun, telling her personal history according to religious divisions of the day (Sext, None, Vespers, etc.).

In a way, the title story is the most daring. This straightforward first-person account of a fool in love with a romantically sordid poet portrays the narrator as someone who is singularly ludicrous. This, even though she puts herself through a hell as universal as -- if I may borrow one more trope from the story "As If," and apply it here -- "red brick buildings the color of a brick-red Crayola crayon." DOUG NUFER


LOST AND FOUND

Negrophobia: An Urban Parable by Darius James

(Citadel Underground) $5 usedWhat if there were a cult film in which the heroine, "Bubbles Brazil," wandered through a series of campy skits, colliding with her racism in uncomfortable but hilarious ways? We could throw empty Aunt Jemima syrup bottles and raw Pillsbury dough at the screen.

Written as a screenplay, this is exactly what Darius James' Negrophobia recommends. It is a journey into the heart of dark comedy. Bubbles Brazil, the blond protagonist, is the white vessel that James has chosen to fill with his voodoo concoction. As Bubbles bathes upstairs -- snacking on chocolates in the likeness of Louis Farrakhan -- the maid prepares a magical concoction of hominy grits for breakfast, adding a white mouse to taste. This serum will make manifest Bubble's racism, and will result in a purge: forced self-urination under the gaze of badass roller derby queens who call themselves "Aunt Jemima's Flapjack Ninja Killers from Hell!"

From here the parable twists, becoming increasingly outlandish from one skit to the next, like the panels of a cartoon. Licorice Men throw a flaming Tar Baby on a Doughboy, cooking him down to biscuits. Buppets (black Muppets) get their heads blown off, and cotton flies everywhere. The Negromancer, a.k.a. Talking Dreads, leads Bubbles through an alarming oral history of racist imagery.

Negrophobia is an inquisition of commercialized, American racism, and Darius James shies away from nothing save complacent acceptance of this society's racist fabric. The book is a no-holds-barred wrestling match, pitting stereotype against stereotype, proposing a strange three-step self-help strategy:

1. Consume.

2. Purge.

3. Repeat steps one and two until it's no longer obvious who's consuming who, what exactly is being purged. The fear, inherent in gentrification, falters into farce, and learns how to stop worrying and love da bomb. KREG K. HASEGAWA