by Elizabeth Evans
(HarperCollins) $24

Find what your characters love most and destroy it; discover your characters' worst fears and torment them. This is the operating principle behind Elizabeth Evans' new novel, Carter Clay. From the first chapter on, it's a dangerous mix of fear, reason, and religion.

A family of two evolutionary biologists and their precocious child are hit by a van, driven by Carter Clay. The father is killed, the mother is severely brain damaged, and the daughter is paralyzed from the waist down.

After that the book becomes an analysis of worsening tragedy, as each survivor attempts to direct the world in the way he or she believes the situation may best be salvaged. The daughter reads to her mother from her mother's own pre-accident writing, setting up "school," trying to regain memory. Carter Clay, armed with a conviction in the simplest version of AA-inspired Christianity, strives to atone for his act by latching on to the brain-damaged mother, first as an aide in a convalescent home, and later as a husband, pushing the family to the brink of death a second time through a series of unfortunate though well-intentioned choices.

What's scary is that these characters all wish for the same thing: to reverse the accident, to mend and make amends. But they're all hopelessly under-prepared to manage the lives they've found themselves living. The reader is left to watch the collision of malformed or only partially informed ideas delivered through the careful scrutiny of an observant third person.

Evans' intimately involved yet emotionally detached narrator contributes to the success--and the horror--of the material. Through this narrator Evans uncovers the heartbreak and humanity, turning perpetrator into victim as well. MONICA DRAKE


by Will Self
(Grove Press )$23

Will Self's latest volume offers us eight new stories: two that bore, two that fail, two that amuse, and a pair that resonate. Much of the writing wears its brilliant precision well. Throughout, Self displays a Nabokovian zeal for cutting up philistines and psychiatrists.

In Junk Mail, Self's collection of essays, he described himself as a satirist and a Burroughsian--which means his writing is cruel and crass, dark, and distasteful, and (if it is to succeed) fast and funny. With the inconsistency characteristic of this style, Tough Tough Toys toggles between word-perfect caricatures and unfunny gags.

The unfunny gags run from the bizarrely pointless "Dave Too," about a narrator obsessing over the commonness of that name, to the sci-fi sex farce "Caring, Sharing," about large robots who preside over the emotional needs of their owners. Two other stories employ recycled plots: "A Story For Europe," about a man switching consciousness with a baby (which Irvine Welsh's Acid House already did), and "Flytopia," about a man who learns to live with the insects infesting his house (which MTV's Joe's Apartment already did).

The stories bookending this collection are the resonant ones, and they function as blips of humanity on Self's drearily satirical radar screen. These two stories delineate two lives forever changed by the appearance of a monstrous monolith of crack in their house. In "The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz," brothers Danny and Tembe go from living in obscure poverty to supplying drugs to an Iranian playboy. "The Nonce Prize" sees Danny set up and imprisoned, whereupon he (and the book) stops and reflects for the first time. PHILIP GUICHARD

by Christopher Hitchens
(Verso) $19

In his latest leftist lambaste of Bill Clinton, Christopher Hitchens distills charges he's launched against the Commander in Chief during the last seven years. What he ended up with is either a deliciously flammable punch of a long essay, or seditious pamphlet. "I'm trying to bring back to journalism the pamphlet tradition, a tradition that goes back to that radical Englishman Thomas Paine," Hitchens tells a crowd in the basement lecture room of the Elliott Bay Bookstore here in Seattle. Hitchens' last two 100-page "pamphlets" are also short and sweet--or sour, if you disagree.

"Your President... is a rapist, a war criminal, and a sociopathic and habitual liar," begins Hitchens, to an applauding audience. These charges are given due elaboration throughout the six carefully and cleverly worded essays that comprise the pamphlet. Hitchens takes stock of the fact that he's never had to retract an accusation. "No one has ever asked me to retract them, not even the Clintons. If someone charged me with them, I'd certainly speak up," he later mentions to me during an interview at the Bookstore Cafe.

For the assembled Seattleites he reads from Chapter 3, "The Policy Coup." This essay exposes the egregious elements of "triangulation" as they were employed by Clinton, at the suggestion of his powerful advisor Dick Morris, to annihilate welfare. "Triangulation" is a slippery term--one coined, notes Hitchens, by the former loyal employee of Senator Jesse Helms, Dick Morris. It's basically "three-card monte," we're told on page 34: Clintonian elites manipulate the masses with pollster statistics; Republican platforms are guessed at before being positioned, thus leaving "punching air," as Hitchens explains; conservatives are held up as a "medusa's head" to pacify or rally liberals, depending on the cause; in either case, Clinton gets "soft-money" and "hard-money" from the rich, and the poor get kicked in the head. Of Clinton's cynical manipulation of the left Hitchens writes, "At all times, Clinton's retreat from egalitarian or even from 'progressive' positions has been hedged by a bodyguard of political correctness." CHRISTOPHER COTTRELL

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