TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE: THE COLOSSAL BOOK OF URBAN LEGENDS

by Jon Harold Brunvand

(W.W. Norton & Co) $29.95

The subjects of this dispiriting book range from babies to Internet hoaxes, but thematically they're all pretty much the threadbare reversals beloved of sitcom producers. There's the jealous wife who Super Glues hubby's penis to his stomach; the goofball couple who, mistaking a rat for a Chihuahua, adopt it as a pet; and of course, naked people caught in the sort of zany situations beloved of old-time Playboy cartoonists. Ooh-la-la!

Brunvand's sources are pretty much what you'd expect from a University of Utah professor emeritus, so don't expect the really juicy stuff about the CIA and crack, or J. Edgar Hoover in a dress. To his credit he's an earnest researcher, although in my opinion four versions of the story of the elevator-riding black celeb who commands "Down!," causing a terrified female hick to hit the floor, is about three too many.

Judging from the extreme brevity of these tales, storytelling in the heartland is not only dead, it's decomposed. The only exceptions are those apocryphal insurance reports in which an alleged moron tries to explain how he mangled himself in an industrial accident. Typical of this tedious genre is the bantamweight bricklayer who tried lowering, via pulley and rope, a 500-pound barrel of bricks perched atop a five-story building. Buster Keaton would have made this story the centerpiece of a two-reel masterpiece, but then again, unlike Brunvand's locuters, Keaton didn't have a mean bone in his body. KENT MILLER

PAMELA: A NOVEL

by Pamela Lu

(Atelos #4, Distributed by Small Press Distribution, 1341 Seventh Street, Berkeley, CA 94700-1403) $12.95

Pamela: A Novel is one of the finest books to emerge from the ardent, experimental writing scene in the Bay Area. Pamela marries the ability to generalize with the endless unrolling of the self as it readjusts to its own failure to exist. Lu tracks the doings of L, R, C, A, and the narrator, I, as they look at a mall, eat at a Malaysian restaurant on Clement Street, or go for a walk. L, R, C, A, and I are instances of themselves, functions, mispronounced words. Lu conveys the boundless artificiality of their experience and the particular nausea of imploding infrastructures in a pastiche of 18th-century style whose artifice is never broken and whose solemn periods are as measured as a Handel march.

I prefer to think of Lu's sentences as Ciceronian and to read Pamela as classical revival in the tradition of the early modernists like Isadora and Nijinsky. Here are the generally held truths, what oft was thought, expressed in old new sentences ringing with collective confidence. Lu's generally held tenets call for a disbelief so extreme they are reduced to faith.

These truths, ne'er so well expressed, are emitted by We, a glorious pronoun in which Lu builds a social space and founds a society. Like any court society, the function of each member is to be a little different from the others in order to create fascinating permutations of like and unlike. Pamela could be a collaboration of Madame de La Fayette and Maurice Blanchot, but "the community of doubt" looks like a Rotary Club next to L, R, C, A, and I!

Archimedes said, "Give me a place to stand and I will move the world." But what if the place to stand turns out to be too far away? Then he would be in a good position to comment on the disappearance of the subject. The combination of intimate and distant, full and empty, fertile and arid, expectation and loss, and the sheer might of Lu's prose, fills this grateful reader with a mournful jubilation. ROBERT GLüCK

THE RIGHT HAND OF EVIL

by John Saul

(Ballantine Books) $25

In some of his previous novels, locally based horror author John Saul has presented provocative stories that link evil to some amorphous quality in the American landscape, or to the crassness and imbecility of adults. But in Saul's latest effort, evil inhabits an old house just because it does, perhaps because evil is just about anywhere, like darn ol' Lucifer. That's a lax and frustrating basis for a book: This thick, careless novel seems a hasty version of The Shining -- another version of the haunted house trope which, with more careful treatment, can really explore why and how Evil-in-the-house is such a potent myth in our minds and culture. What is it we fear in our own homes?

But, oh dear, The Right Hand of Evil sports predictable characters and plot elements -- an old family curse, an alcoholic father, sensitive twin kids (one of whom becomes "infected" by ancestral evil nightmares), a weary priest, a mean old granny, and voodoo-style killings of family pets. The whole lot doesn't add up to much, though the teenage boy character, a defiant type who becomes a version of Evil that listens to ass-rock on headphones, is rather vivid. It's always a jolt, realizing the kind of clichés that sail routinely through the big publishing houses ("a creature, blacker even than night, waited there"), bringing up the larger question: Why don't publishers take more risks in promoting mass-audience material that isn't so dumbed down? Despite that it's all kool to be outfitted in the trappings of mass culture, who is responsible for its flatness and stupidity? The audiences, who demand predictable stuff, or the producers of culture? STACEY LEVINE

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