by William McBrien
(Knopf) $30

Oh, the times without number, like the drip drip drip of the raindrops, Cole Porter biographies concentrate on you. Ring bells, sing songs, blow horns, beat gongs? Get out of town. To live it again is past all endeavor. It's the wrong game with the wrong chips; a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop. Yet resurrected and sailing the crest, it brings back the sound of music so tender. What's the use of moth balls? Time marches on and soon it's plain; there's such an air about it of vainly fighting the old ennui.

According to the Kinsey Report, the world has gone mad today. The stars fill the sky; so easy to idolize all others above. It's delirious. When fortune cries for a trip to paradise, we touch too much what heaven we're in. And there we are, swearing to love stereophonic sound from those little radios.

If you want to get the crowd to come around, you do something that nobody else could do, that thing that makes bees refuse to sting. In thinking such a thing could be a Shakespeare sonnet, you're Mickey Mouse. I hate parading my serenading, but William McBrien's Cole Porter is just one of those things that comes in the purple light of a summer night in Spain, and repeats and repeats to the monotone of the evening's drone, like the moon growing dim on the rim of the hill in the chill still of the night. DOUG NUFER

by Bruce Robinson
(Penguin) $24.95

Twenty-nine-year-old Withnail, the frantically dissolute, wretched bastard foil to Withnail & I's equally adrift narrator, was Bruce Robinson's finest creation. Steeped in the low-grade insanity of late '60s glassy-eyed London youth, permanently broke yet high, it is the pomp of Withnail's decadence that won the film its many admirers.

Thomas Penman is 13 years old, and so he's both more and less perverse than Withnail. It doesn't take speed and weed and massive doses of wine to keep a kid sleepless, alternately terrified and beatified; everybody knows there's nothing more bizarre, exhausting, and mind-altering than the time spent actually growing up. Where Withnail idled desperately in that space between youth and the terrible impending bore of adulthood, ambition, and the like, Thomas is in the thick of it; motoring full speed through an unmapped small-town landscape peopled with strangers no less strange for being family.

But who cares? Weren't we all there once? The difference in The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman is Thomas's careening panache; he already possesses a hopelessly well-developed sensibility. The cadence of his interior monologue (although Robinson has wisely restrained himself to the third person) is reckless, but has a certain effete maturity. Thomas has, for instance, an unusually developed respect for antiques, and disdains his mother for failing to recognize their value. He is also an unrepentant creeper, on a perilous mission to claim the keys to his grandfather's legendary pornography collection; he is annoyed to find himself instead nosing his way around the smoky, meat-stained house, trying to establish how his family became such a useless collection of damaged goods.

Thomas is coming of age all right, but without the nostalgic stink that permeates the genre. Robinson revels in the fucking horribleness of youth, but provides Thomas enough dry wit to survive even these wrenching years with a modicum of hard-won style. EVAN SULT

by Woody Haut
(Serpent's Tail) $16.99

I've never understood the point of books like this. First, the author attempts to define a genre (neon noir) within a larger genre (hard-boiled crime fiction), in a disconcertingly arbitrary way. This first grave error makes the title of the book irrelevant, which is a bad sign when you haven't even reached the first chapter yet. Chapter one is devoted to showing how the genre was influenced by the Vietnam War. Haut then quotes from a number of novels, most of which do not mention the war at all. Undeterred, Haut shows how they are, in fact, all about the war.

The rest of the book is pretty much the same. Each chapter puts forth an argument of some sort about how neon-noir fiction has been influenced by "the culture," analyzing a different set of novels each time. Though the author blurb tries to establish Haut's street cred by listing all the blue-collar jobs he has held, it seems he's spent a little time in the academy as well, judging by his use of a number of annoying lit-crit catchwords. The writing's also stiff and just plain bad in places.

I'll say this for Haut: he has pretty good taste in hard-boiled crime novels. If the definition of "neon noir" is nothing more than "books that Woody Haut likes," then it's certainly a genre worth devouring--with Charles Willeford and James Ellroy as leading lights, it's got to be.

If his criticism, whatever it is, misses the mark, at least he's provided a useful guide to what's good in the world of hard-boiled crime. Also useful is an appendix dealing with film versions of neon-noir novels.

For people who can't enjoy a good crime novel without telegraphing the "seriousness" of their analysis, this is a good book to be seen with. For the rest of us, it's little more than a list to bring to the video store, bookstore, or library. DAN TENENBAUM

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