THE AGE OF TERROR by David Plante(St. Martin's Press) $24.95Turning on the TV last night, I caught the tail end of a KOMO news report about tips for beating mild winter depression. They seemed to be saying that the ceaseless rain over the past few months has created an alarming mental health crisis in Seattle, and the best way to beat it is to go en masse to the handful of tanning salons we have here. It was neither the chirping voice-over that I minded so much, nor the curious public health recommendation that we all get suntans. No, the worst part about the report was its inherent assumption that we all want to be perfectly happy, as if it was not actually winter all around us--in the skies, in the trees, in our hearts and in our minds. The producers at KOMO 4 News, apparently, have never enjoyed winter's strong psychic pull; they have never appreciated the rapture of wintry dissolution, mild depression, and wine alcoholism.

Those of us who have felt these things and do not find them entirely unpleasant should turn off the television as soon as possible and go out and buy David Plante's new novel, The Age of Terror, for a potent read to accompany the rain. Set in Leningrad and Moscow during the last winter of the Soviet Union, this compact (224-page) novel traces the slow shufflamese of a 23-year-old American on his descent through the Russian economic and psychic underworld. Alone and unable to speak the language, Joe, the protagonist, is befriended by a middle-aged Russian woman who is somehow involved in smuggling prostitutes out of Russia. Most of the events of the novel happen in Moscow, where the Russian's partner, an alcoholic American named Gerald, spends nearly the whole novel seated with Joe in a small apartment, drinking, sweating, and making vague threats. A plot summary, however, won't do this novel justice, because really, there is no plot. The Age of Terror is strong precisely because its emotion is so naked, with no dazzling action, detail, or dialogue to cover it up. Instead of doing great things or having great thoughts, the main character has a perpetual fever and dreams lucidly of revolting World War II atrocities. His actions and words are inscrutable, morose and repetitive, and it is this circularity which renders all of the book's characters and actions transcendent, creating a world of ardent emotion which is not driven by the trappings of time or place. The reader, looking outside at the sunless skies and the fruitless trees, will recognize instantly that the tremendous power of The Age of Terror begins and ends here, with our very own winter. NATHAN THORNBURGH

EMPRESS OF THE SPLENDID SEASON by Oscar Hijuelos(HarperCollins) $25

So much about being a poor but beautiful cleaning lady with elegant taste and a good upbringing is defined by desire, want, need, lust--words that carve a hollow in your gut and leave behind a vacuum of voyeuristic envy. A hunger fed by the "low- and high-class tarecos or chucherías, bric-a-brac and apartment nonsense" that fill the houses of your moneyed employers. A yearning with which Oscar Hijuelos nearly drowns his Cuban Cinderella, Lydia EspaÑa.That the author's working-class Galatea is impossibly lovely--"Thin but voluptuous enough to draw the attentions of men"--is a familiar and endurable, if not realistic, portrait; that her libido is healthy and her vanity even more robust is understandable; but the fact that Hijuelos never really permits his character to speak for herself is unforgivable. Nearly all of her dialogue comes in parenthetical musings about her desire to be noticed by men, the richer the better. Even if the world is filled with plenty of women praying for the same, you wish it weren't. You wish they were stronger, that Lydia herself was stronger--something more than a writer's rag doll, a political example, a literary device.

Hijuelos' own voice flamesaunts the mastery that garnered him a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. He knows when one choice phrase en espanol is more telling of fear or frustration (¡Carajo!) than an entire monologue in English. It's a language you can savor, like the sweetness of fried platanos, and Hijuelos knows just how to cook with his words. You want to taste the sound of them with your own mouth. And you can't help but feel sorry for his characters who go hungry at the feast. Oscar Hijuelos reads at Elliott Bay Books, 101 S Main St, 624-6600, Mon Feb 22 at 7:30 pm (free advance tickets). Arlene Kim

BEHIND THE RED MIST by Ho Anh Thaitranslated by Nguyen Qui Duc

(Curbstone Press, 321 Jackson St, Willimantic, CT 06226) $14.95

Ho Anh Thai was born in Hanoi in 1960, and in his adult life has become something of a mucky-muck who has served in a number of high government posts. As a result he has traveled outside his country more than the average Vietnamese writer, and several of the stories in this book take place in other countries, most notably India. The stories share some fantastic elements, but they range wildly in style and narrative. In all the stories, however, the tragic and the mundane coexist in a world of magical realism. Another basic theme is how people respond to being oppressed, whether by governments, religions, or tradition. Written with a beautiful, sad rage, "A Sigh Through the Laburnums" tells the wrenching story of an Indian woman, who, after being disfigured by an angry in-law, makes her living by getting rid of unwanted female newborns. Her value as a woman in Indian society nullified by her scars, she finds her niche in sparing other families similar miseries. Bringing it back home, "The Chase" criticizes the excesses of the government that employed Thai, telling the story of a group of youths evading the "Red Banner Brigades," who roved across the Vietnamese countryside for many years beating and arresting those wearing Western-style clothing. Far from being bourgeois counter-revolutionaries, Thai depicts the boys as quite ordinary, wanting to look sharp to impress young women.

The book closes with the novella of the title. Tan, a young man in 1987, has an accident and is transported back 20 years, to the height of the war. He meets his parents before he was born, as their equal. The time-travel device is cumbersome and self-consciously clumsy, and the novella is more of a catalog of each character's history than a plot-driven narrative, but it is nevertheless broodingly evocative. People meet, fall in love, have fights, ambitions, and scams, and all the while, 500-pound American bombs rain down from the sky. These are the stories below those clouds of bombs we used to see falling on television. They are varied, rich, and powerful. DAN TENENBAUM

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