by Bill Bryson (Broadway Books) $25

The trouble with travel writers, an editor at Outside recently told me, is that they either can't string two words together, or they can write but are afraid to go in the water.

In the latter group include Bill Bryson, who is cautious as ever in his current look at Australia, In a Sunburned Country. He shrinks from snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, leaving readers with only a glimpse from a submersible boat. He stays in his car at Ayers Rock. In a nation known for its frontier spirit, he spends his time around paved roads, cultural museums, and hotel bars.

But for all his reticence, he fills his book with wild tales. He's funny and madly curious, stuffing a single chapter with giant razor-clawed birds, 12-foot worms, and the baffling origin of the Aborigines. His discussions leap from a murderous outlaw-hero to a combination pet food/pornography shop. He finds the world's deadliest creature (a jelly-fish capable of killing a roomful of people with each tentacle), learns how to stuff display animals, and bonds with eccentric Australians on all coasts.

It's true that we'd see more if Bryson would go in the water; and yes, his voice can be mannered, especially in the stilted last sentence of each section. Yet when feats of survival dominate the market, it's refreshing to imagine trips without supplemental oxygen or imminent danger, and his book does achieve the highest end of a travel narrative: It makes you dream of going there. DAN NEWMAN


by Frederic Raphael (Catbird Press) $24

"Whether Mercuès or I proved to have made the correct forecast, France would maintain her reputation as a leader of the world's game." So states the concluding sentence of the first paragraph in Frederic Raphael's novel A Double Life. It is superficially as duplicitous a statement as the position from which it is pulled. It presents a doubled opinion ("Whether Mercuès or I") with a singular result ("France would maintain her reputation"). However, it is only paradoxical until one understands the code: that of rhetorical diplomacy, the maintenance of the status quo, the art of the stalemate.

Known most recently for his screenplay adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's novella Rhapsody for Stanley Kubrick's treatise on marriage and desire, Eyes Wide Shut, Frederic Raphael constructs this novel out of a memoir penned by retired French diplomat Guy de Roumengouse, who recounts, in two fluid arcs, his time spent as a young exile during the German occupation of France during WWII, and his failed first marriage. Roumengouse is an atrociously dry individual, constantly conversing in what Orwell called double-speak and what Sartre referred to as Bad Faith. The most dramatic moments of this book (his rejection and repression of homosexual advances, his qualified desire for prostitutes, and his brushes with homicide) leave readers yearning for the laundry to finish so that they might--while counting quarters--start another load.

This is not to say that the prose is not well written, or that the novel has not achieved its purposes. I suspect Raphael has rendered a mimetic characterization of a minor diplomat specifically for the sake of a heady critique of international politics and the relativity of gesticulative connivance. The overall effect, which I also suspect was intentional, is tepid frustration. It is like watching two mediocre chess players end each match in a draw, shake hands, and play the same game again, as a recording of Les Miserable skips joylessly in the background. KREG HASEGAWA


by Lew McCreary (Grove Press, reprinted 1999) $12

This disturbing and overlooked book is as slow and deliberate as a fatal disease, and packs the same devastating punch. Each page brings you deeper into the mind of a polite, clean-cut serial killer until you like him as much as his unsuspecting victims do. Lew McCreary's soft-spoken, sensitive murderer, Vann Siegert, is a shy, sexually stunted postal worker with a rotten, complicated past and a penchant for poisoning strangers.

Although people die like flies in this book, it is Vann who elicits worry. He is Ted Bundy with a heart, and his journey is completely compelling. McCreary paces his narrative in the same way Vann thinks about things--cautiously, thoroughly--until the reader is sucked into Vann's world, where killing people because the river says he should seems perfectly reasonable. While Vann watches on TV the discovery of one of his victims, he ruminates mournfully, "People simply disappear. They are there, and then they're gone. I enjoyed watching him from a distance. It felt important. I felt the pity in my eyes." He experiences a genuine connection only to the people he has killed, and that is why he cannot stop himself. Stopping equals dying, and by the end of the book you are so protective of him that you hope he'll get away with it. You could just rent the movie, skillfully adapted by the producers of Sling Blade (starring the charming Owen Wilson), but you would miss the real treasure buried deep in McCreary's text. RITAH PARRISH