MONICA'S STORY
by Andrew Morton
(St. Martin's Press) $24.95

It is, of course, too soon to publish a book on the Clinton/Lewinsky sex scandal. Nothing helps a writer gain a greater sense of perspective than the simple passage of time. But as long as there's an audience willing to cough up the cash, why delay? The publication of Monica's Story couldn't even wait for the end of the impeachment trial; it concludes with Lewinsky's testimony before the House Managers on February 1, 1999. So, with the end in sight, the publishers couldn't wait two more weeks? Such is their confidence in how quickly we'd lose interest.

They may have a point; all the lurid detail anyone could possibly want about the affair had already made the rounds via the Starr Report. Morton takes on the task of humanizing Lewinsky, fleshing out her personality, revealing another side of "the woman whose name is known around the world but whose life is still a mystery." What you find isn't all that mysterious. In essence, Lewinsky's fling with the prez was just another garden-variety unrequited love affair, the kind you look back on in your own life saying, "How could I have been so stupid?" Morton's mushy writing ("It was the smell of eucalyptus wafting along the powder-blue carpeted corridors that first seduced Monica") makes it even more embarrassing than it was in reality. (He also loses points for citing Portland, Oregon as the birthplace of Kurt Cobain).

The only really eye-opening part of Monica's Story is the shameful treatment she received at the hands of the Office of the Independent Council, a level of harassment that's shocking in an allegedly "free" society. If that's the treatment they can dish out to those who run in presidential circles, you and I haven't a prayer. Too bad people are more concerned with the color of Monica's lipstick. GILLIAN G. GAAR

THINK OF THE SELF SPEAKING: HARRY SMITH--SELECTED INTERVIEWS edited by Steve Creson and Darrin Daniel
(Elbow/Cityful Press, Seattle) $16.95

Ever since his Anthology of American Folk Music was reissued in 1997, there has been a great deal of renewed interest in Harry Smith. DJ Spooky is touring the country, spinning the music behind Smith's films. Anthology Film Archives in New York is trying to raise $80,000 to strike a print of Mahagonny, Smith's film masterpiece. Now local publishers Elbow/Cityful Press have brought out this collection of interviews with Smith.

Smith, who died in 1991, was a collector of music and art, a painter, a filmmaker, an occultist, and an anthropologist. It's the commas in that list, however, that describe him best: he was not only all of those things (and more), he made explicit connections between these pursuits. To Smith, music and art were richer systems for transmitting information than written language, and he made art that broke down the walls between the senses: some of his hand-painted films were painstakingly crafted to correspond to every nuance of a Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk composition.

Smith's capacious mind is the most interesting thing about him. Reading these interviews is like watching a single neuron as it bounces from one random synapse to the next, building up an unlikely string of insights as it goes. Smith goes on for dozens of pages, jumping in the same sentence from Ukrainian painted eggs to Seminole patchwork quilts, from Bertolt Brecht to the occult oral traditions of the eunuchs of Rajasthan. From another's mouth, such discourse might seem deranged, but Smith's genius is in making clear the links between the many things that interest him. Not to say there aren't elements of craziness--Smith's often high on speed and abusive to his interviewers--but he's always fascinating. The editors of Think of the Self Speaking read Sun April 11 at 7 pm, Pistil Books, 1013 E Pike St, 860-4312, free. DAN TENENBAUM

BURNING GIRL
by Ben Neihart
(Weisbach Morrow) $24

Ben Neihart has followed his acclaimed debut, Hey Joe, with a send-up of sorts, an ostensible thriller which offers a bisexual, late-capitalist riff on the claustrophobic American noir of Jim Thompson and James Cain. While Burning Girl does inventory the requisite elements of the grisly genre--lust, greed, and violence (implied, sexual, overt)--the book is, unfortunately, a bust. The first few chapters kick off with a gossipy, bratty sense of promise, but the story slowly and wearily devolves into a querulous, repetitive cat-and-mouse game of internal narration and patchwork monologues which, by the second half of the book, hits a complete stall.

The mystery at the heart of this story--the rape and murder of aspirant white trash at the hands of randy rich kids whacked on mushrooms--is an obvious attempt to wedge the thorny issue of class privilege and ennui into a form ready-made for such commentaries. But Burning Girl is rendered in such a hollow manner that this potentially juicy potboiler becomes just a flat puppet dance of improbable nihilism and hackneyed motives. The detached narration makes it creepy, but not the right kind of creepy. The scant, flashback histories of the three main characters are tossed in like afterthoughts, and the loyalty-torn protagonist's miasmic seduction into a ménage à trois with chesty Jake and cuntish Bahar--the ultra-wealthy but possibly homicidal sibling tag team--is just not scintillating enough to justify his interminable hanging around to sort it all out.

There are other problems, none of which would matter much if Neihart had control over, or even discernible interest in, his material. Even the most convoluted, trashiest pulp fiction can be fun and rewarding if it is injected with energy, a redeeming sense of humor, verve, anything. But Burning Girl ultimately exhibits only tiredness. Neihart reads from Burning Girl Wed April 14 at 7 pm, Bailey/Coy Books, 414 Broadway E, 323-8842, free. RICK LEVIN

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