EAST BAY GREASE

by Eric Miles Williamson

(Picador) $23

"I smelled dope." The opening line of Eric Miles Williamson's debut novel, East Bay Grease, isn't terribly shocking, until you realize the narrator is an adolescent boy whose mother is carrying on like a lunatic in the next room, playing hostess to a flock of horny Hell's Angels. But this glimpse of dysfunctionality is mild compared to the odyssey of violence, poverty, and neglect which young T-Bird Murphy endures in this book. He's literally got to fight just to stay alive.

The setting is Oakland, an industrial ghetto where the Summer of Love has resolutely failed to cast its benevolent glow. The economy is kaput and the streets are brutal, with racial tensions erupting at every corner. T-Bird must navigate this dreary wasteland, toward an adulthood which itself holds very little promise of redemption. He is, from birth, imprisoned by the caste of abject poverty. As one of his "stepfathers" tells him, "God is a millionaire, and he don't give a rat's ass about the poor. He was invented by the poor, but the rich bought the fucker out."

Williamson's writing is a relentless, stylized reportage: Tragic episodes are related with an eerie sense of detachment; characters die in one sentence and are forgotten the next. There's a lot of obscene gallows humor. But the sheer accumulation of deadpan detail begins to gather an unlikely emotional intensity--paradoxically, Williamson's ascetic prose reveals both the incredible pain T-Bird experiences, and his ultimate acceptance and overcoming of that pain. It is this slow, quiet revelation of hope which makes East Bay Grease such a fascinating, compelling read. RICK LEVIN

PSYCHOPUP AND OTHER STORIES

by Janice Knapp

(Creative Arts) $13.95

In the first story of this book, a creature with the head of a dog and the body of a boy is adopted by a group of monks. When he grows up, dog-boy Damon Porter becomes a fisherman, a college student, a food taster, a narc, and a rock star. Some of this is funny, but after a while the corny puns get to be too much. Damon's macho college roommate is named Budd Manhard. His first sexual experience is with someone named Letja Delit: "That night, Damon lost his virginity to Letja's delight." Argh. In the next two stories ("Freud's Faithful Collaborator" and "What Does the Bitch Want?"), dogs, by snorting and snuffling beneath the couch and licking the hands of analysands, help the first shrink discover his theories of repression, regression, and eros.

Other animals get weird, too. Thirty wild baby rabbits make a mess of a nice lady's kitchen, a blob of houseflies sexually assault a sleeping wife named Maude, and an eccentric Dane plays with a bunch of lions. Then things that aren't even animals get weird: A house plant devours a scientist; a jealous fairy bites a romantically challenged man. The strength of these quirky little stories is their suggestion of menace lurking beneath our modern domesticity. When Knapp abandons modern settings and tries to tell more standard vampire and werewolf stories set in the past, the work suffers. REBECCA BROWN

New Feature!

LOST AND FOUND BOOKS

HOTEL LIFE by Norman S. Hayner

(University of North Carolina Press) Out of Print

When we were small, my sister and I used to imagine what it would be like to live rich and pampered in an exotic hotel. With other friends, we would pretend to check in, be shown to our suites (in reality, our own toy-stuffed bedrooms), and then, with the sun at bay behind thick vinyl window shades, settle into a sumptuous nap. Our kid fantasy of being cocooned in luxury echoed the larger culture's excitement and fascination with wealth.

Likewise, this wonderful vintage tome, by one-time UW professor Norman Hayner, embodies a childlike excitement in the prospect of staying away from home in a place where a cheerful staff will tend to your needs. But Hotel Life, published in 1936, is also a heady parcel of social history about an era when the hotel had a wider role in city life. These days, hotels are strictly for travelers and vacationers, but, as the Thin Man films will show you, living in a hotel for the short or long term was a sign of sophistication, social standing, and urbane élan at a time when a significant percentage of the U.S. population lived in small towns.

Hotel Life is an earnest study of this bygone era in which the tedious burden of cultural irony did not exist; instead, there were other burdens. Formal dancing and orchestras were part of every weekend.

Hayner taught at the UW from 1925-1968, and died in 1977. Many of his research years were devoted to the hotel and its function in city life. Though the book's tone is stock-serious, it's filled with stilted-sounding, gemlike observations like "Freedom to do as one wishes is the most appealing and the most dangerous of the four reasons why people make their homes in hotels rather than in apartments or separate houses.... 'Here you have no housekeeping cares and troubles,' the enthusiastic hotel man argues." Hayner attempts to be objective, offering a good sampling of charts and graphs. (Interestingly, in 1939 Seattle had more hotel rooms per capita than 25 other major U.S. cities.) But the muffled excitement of chapters like "Why Live in a Hotel?" and "The Lure of Highways and City Lights" reveal the author's little-boy enthusiasm for the modest excitements of staying in a downtown hotel. STACEY LEVINE

Support The Stranger