by G. E. Patterson
(Graywolf) $12.95

One thing I can say for education is that it teaches you how to straddle a fence while believing you are actually making a stand. The problem arises when the fence becomes uncomfortable and you have to rest on one side or the other. G. E. Patterson seems caught on that fence in his first poetry collection, Tug. He teeters between "academic" forms and spoken word, bringing forth large ideas with simple diction. The ideas, however, are often too large for the language.

Patterson documents the private personal and the public historical--touching upon everything that naturally falls in between. "BLS" speaks of hearing for the first time that Betty Shabazz has died. Here, Patterson turns the phrase "on the radio" several times to take on meanings at once simple and yet beyond the phrase's scope. He works words in this manner, and through forms like the sonnet, sestina, and elegy, Patterson shines. Free-verse poems like "Six A.M. Jazz Tanka," "Poem without a Title," and "Yesterday I Could Have Been Anaïs Nin," read more like spoken word or prose with random line breaks, where often the issue is not form, but when and where the poem ends.

Tug pulls at two sides of the self, creating an imbalance that the reader cannot control or find stability in. As a first collection it does what most first collections do, which is to present the writer to the reader. Now that we have been formally introduced, I will be expecting much greater things from G. E. Patterson. LAURI CONNER

by Deborah Levy
(Dalkey Archive Press) $13.95

Deborah Levy's tragic caricature of teenage kids abandoned by their parents reminds me of a favorite suburban childhood game: "Lost Kids." Around twilight we transformed into a scraggly orphaned pack. Evening bloomed with glorious skylessness, all of us high on the absence of authority. A logic of abandonment and violence was the foundation from which we worked our plans, pretending the adults we spied drinking highballs were our lost parents, and pushing each other around in the gravel driveway.

In Billy and Girl, Girl searches for their delinquent mother with the famous beehive hairdo. She knocks on strangers' doors and addresses whoever answers as "Mom?" Billy stays at home cooking pizzas like he fancies his mother used to, and writing Billy England's Book of Pain. Girl provides tutorials on the subject, preparing Billy for real life.

Chapters alternate between Billy's voice and Girl's voice. As the book descends further into their search for parents, FreezerWorld, the gigantic supermarket, takes hold of Girl's spiritual life. "A frozen warm world. Girl can gaze at anything she likes, for as long as she likes, without having to explain herself. If FreezerWorld was a suburb, Girl would move there."

As Girl becomes increasingly obsessed with FreezerWorld, the story gains momentum, and the apparent senselessness of the kids' actions exhibit a poetic and hilarious reply to the shit they've been dealt. Girl smokes menthols and guzzles apricot schnapps, as she spray paints the aisles in red statements of "MOM CALL HOME. GIRL X," while Billy turns any hint of friendship into a psyche study for his book. Levy writes swift and original prose that does not patronize its characters, nor does it dwell too long on cultural criticisms. She carries the reader right through the story, slamming against the back seat of Billy and Girl's Mercury as she whips around corners, the airplane bottles clinking in the mini-bar Girl built in back. RACHEL KESSLER

by Paul LaFarge
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) $13

The Artist of the Missing, Paul LaFarge's debut novel, has been compared to the early work of Paul Auster. Like Auster, LaFarge is interested in exploring the conventions of narrative: What makes a story a story? What is true, and what is just made up? And how do you know the difference?

Specifically, The Artist of the Missing plays with the traditions of children's stories. It's illustrated, which is fairly unusual for adult literature--though Stephen Alcorn's brooding, geometric woodcuts are about as far from children's book illustration as you can get.

The narrative takes place in a strange and magical world, where the inexplicable is commonplace. In the prologue, a dead man arrives in an unnamed city. The city is large, the man discovers, and full of fascinating sights: a palace in the shape of a clock, cul-de-sacs where the sun shines twice a year, twin museums dedicated to thread and candles. It's a seductive beginning, like the opening of a fairy tale, or a myth.

In chapter one we meet Frank, who has traveled to the city in search of his long-lost parents. He rents a garret, wanders through the streets, teaches himself to draw, and becomes an artist of some skill. He meets and falls in love with Prudence, a police photographer, who disappears mysteriously soon afterward.

As he searches for Prudence, Frank discovers that the city is full of thousands of others whose loved ones have disappeared, never to return. Everyone except Frank seems resigned to the situation, continuing to search even as they realize they will only find others who are searching.

As Frank's adventures become less and less connected, the children's story falls apart. He is sent to prison where he is forbidden to draw, then condemned to some sort of nether world. Eventually, you realize that while Frank's world is almost completely unlike our own, it is similar in one significant way: Mysteries are not always explained; the lost are not always found. What is truth and what is story? At the end Frank never knows, and neither do we. Paul LaFarge reads this Wed, June 30, at Elliott Bay Bookstore, 101 S Main St, 624-6600, 7:30 pm, free (tickets). Carrie Golus

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