The Great Escape

VLS Beach Reads: Relax with a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard, other people's notebooks, and a carnivorous plant

The Possibility of a Beach Read

The New York Times recently asked assorted litterateurs to vote on the best novel of the last 25 years. The trickier question: What's the best beach read? Most whippersnappers, torn away from their World of Warcraft campaigns, will tote nothing heavier than a few comic books. A significant percentage recreate with an escapist quasi-religious exposé (i.e., The Da Vinci Code ). And some favor a large-format book that can double asa shade during prime sunburn hours (i.e., The Da Vinci Code: Special Illustrated Edition ). VLS technicians have determined that while no single book of the past quarter-century (with the possible exception of 2003's Manual of Clinical Psychopharmacology ) comes close to being the libro de playa to end all libros de playa , the titles below all have a shot at the next competition, to be administered in 2031 by one of my clones—probably Ed251.Ed Park


Apathy and Other Small Victories
By Paul Neilan
St. Martin's, 231 pp., $17.95

The malaise of cubicle culture may be well-trodden comedic territory by now, but Neilan's debut skewers office life with a flourish for the grotesque. Apathy opens with a nod to Kafka's Joseph K., as authorities wake up blasé protagonist Shane and take him into custody for no clear reason. Accused of murder, he bounces like a pinball between a cast of cartoonish characters—insurance company lackeys, crooked cops, and an upstairs neighbor who deals in fireworks and dabbles in bestiality. Shane just doesn't care, spending most of his time sleeping in the bathroom at work and glugging pitchers of beer. Twisted descriptions of coitus cast him as the consummate victim: His controlling girlfriend's sexual temperament is akin to that of "the sadistic older brother who holds you down and slaps your forehead over and over again, lets a string of spit fall until it almost hits your face and then slurps it up, over and over again." Martin Mulkeen


Can't Get No
By Rick Veitch
Vertigo, 352 pp., $19.99

Sued because the ineradicable graffiti from his company's "Eter-No-Mark" pens has metastasized throughout the city, young Manhattan exec Chad Roe spirals into a lost weekend of booze, drugs, and self-loathing; passed out, he is maliciously tattooed with his own bread and butter. A yuppie Queequeg, his appearance repels and fascinates onlookers but is shortly trumped by the horrors of 9-11, from which he staggers to a dilapidated American history theme park filled with squatters partying amid the three-story stucco heads of dead presidents. Sans dialogue, entwining poetic captions—"the slippery meat-dream of life"—with beautifully composed ink drawings, this hallucinatory tale finds a Burning Man catharsis at the heart of a jittery nation. R.C. Baker


The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril
By Paul Malmont
Simon & Schuster, 361 pp., $24

Malmont's breezy pulp pastiche, set in '30s New York, charmingly riffs off authorial personae and lets the era's imaginative fictioneers take center stage: H.P. Lovecraft, a pre-Scientology Ron Hubbard, Shadow author Walter Gibson, Doc Savage mastermind Lester Dent, and Chester Himes are all present and itching for adventure. Malmont plays fast and loose with the facts (Hubbard was not, alas, a pallbearer at Lovecraft's funeral), but biographical fidelity is trumped by the air-conditioning qualities of the book's rapid page flip quotient. Ed Park


Double Fault
By Lionel Shriver
Serpent's Tail, 336 pp., $14.95

Photographed kissing the phallic statuette she received when We Need to Talk About Kevin won the 2005 Orange Prize, Shriver wore a look of satisfaction so intense as to verge on impropriety. Now Serpent's Tail has reissued Shriver's 1997 Double Fault, an utterly compelling tale of love and envy in which Willy (short for Wilhelmina) and Eric meet on a Riverside Park court, fall in love, and marry without adequately comprehending the damage their changing national rankings will wreak on this union between two deeply competitive professional tennis players. The short span of an athlete's career means that Willy at 23 considers herself already middle-aged, and a devastating knee injury proves impossible to overcome. Fortunately, making one's mark as a novelist is not subject to the same physiological constraints. Jenny Davidson


The Eagle's Throne
By Carlos Fuentes
Translated by Kristina Cordero
Random House, 335 pp., $26.95

In Fuentes's 15th novel, which takes place in the year 2020, Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. president, has blocked Mexico's access to phone, fax, and e-mail. Delirious and overexcited, the country's most influential men—controlled by seductive women who urge them to be ruthless—are forced to leave a written trail of their indiscretions. In a series of hysterical letters referencing Susan Sontag, Mission Impossible, and Hitler, they all scheme to be the next president. These charmingly sleazy characters take much more pleasure in work than sex: Flirty games and betrayals are mere warm-up for the "prolonged orgasm" of political sway. Rachel Aviv


Esopus, Issue 6: 'Process'
Edited by Tod Lippy
168 pp., $15

The cover mimics a stack of battered spiral-bound notebooks, befitting an issue of working notes by everyone from a movie designer to a mathematician. The result is a thick-stocked glossy beauty, crammed with perforated sheets for constructing a stellated dodecahedron, elaborately printed inserts, ancient typescript work journals from Christopher Isherwood, and scribbled observations by comedian Demetri Martin ("People clap when the plane lands. I like to clap the whole time"). Add a CD of songs composed around Help Wanted ads, and you'll find yourself stopping at odd moments just to pick Esopus up and stare—or listen. Paul Collins


A Fictional History of the United States With Huge Chunks Missing
Edited by T Cooper and Adam Mansbach
Akashic, 331 pp., $15.95

A&E Biography big-timers are either absent or ass-out in this short-story collection, a people's history that mixes the reverent and the absurd. Alexander Chee wind-walks with our Chinese discoverers, David Rees gets his Reconstruction on, and Adam Mansbach rips out the roots of pop-cult colonialism—topping a freewheeling first half that evokes the broken souls of manifest destiny. Things get increasingly solemn after the New Deal, when the excavated voices get closer to ones the writers heard growing up (Keith Knight's cartoon on the ruin wrought by a Globetrotters loss is a hilarious exception). Peruvian writer Daniel Alarcón finally flushes us with a future civil war (next year, even) where rebs steal a presidential limb and the missing chunk becomes America itself. Jon Dolan


Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream
By Jason Fagone
Crown, 256 pp., $24

Of Sonya "the Black Widow" Thomas, the 99-pound, top-ranked competitive eater in America, Fagone wryly notes her "star-shaped barrettes where devil's horns would be." A stylish miniaturist, Fagone doesn't strain his subjects—people named El Wingador and Tim "Eater X" Janus—with undue reverence, as he chronicles a year spent covering 27 contests on the pro noshing circuit. If "In Gorging, Truth" is the International Federation of Competitive Eating's motto, what exactly is Takeru "Koby" Kobayashi, mythic lord of competitive eating, trying to tell us by tucking away 387 bowls of soba noodles in 12 minutes? Nita Rao


Learning to Kill
By Ed McBain
Harcourt, 478 pp., $25

Before he hit it big with his 87th Precinct novels, McBain, who died last year, had a pulp magazine apprenticeship. But this collection of early stories, which he selected and introduced, is more than predictive—it's a minor classic of its kind. He employs Chandlerisms with effective discretion (a woman, passed "from hand to hand like a used wine jug"), and his characters routinely break the bounds of type. The 16-year-old in "On the Sidewalk, Bleeding" isn't just another luckless gang member, but a raw psyche suddenly filled with existential foreboding. Darren Reidy


Phaic Tan
By Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Rob Sitch
Chronicle, 256 pp., $13.95

If you're not planning any exotic trips this summer but crave the feel of card-stock covers and the sort of sans-serif stylings only travel books can deliver, pick up the second installment in the abnormally funny Jetlag series. The outfit that brought you tips on how to survive in the bogus Eastern European backwater known as Molvania now conjures, with a touch both antic and Borgesian, the Southeast Asian archipelago of Phaic Tan, where top attractions include the Museum of Genocide. Remember the motto: "Come with open mind. Stay with open heart. Depart with no more than 1.5 litres of duty free spirits." E.P.


The Poe Shadow
By Matthew Pearl
Random House, 370 pp., $24.95

Pearl's Dante Club follow-up is cut from far less bloody cloth: Edgar Poe's dead and buried, but the truth will out! The details seem maddeningly slight—Did he take a train from Baltimore to Philadelphia? Did he drink? One, or how many? But the odds are stacked for thrills: two rival Dupins in a death match, a sweet American girl thrown over, a sexy French one lurking. The lawyer-hero's quest— to save Poe's reputation as a drunkard and a no-good—is quaint, almost offensive, to modern logic, but the ardor carries its own discomfiting enigma, and the book digs in as an ordeal of the mind in which a fairly decent man must account for his sanity. Phyllis Fong


The Ruins
By Scott Smith
Knopf, 319 pp., $24.95

Amy's the good girl and Stacy's the slut; Eric's the joker and Jeff's the hero. And it's a relief there's not much more to these people before Smith, the author of A Simple Plan, subjects them to his pulp equivalent of a ritual disembowel-ment machine. What starts as a typical Cancún bacchanalia quickly leads these four into a Smith-ian trap designed to exhaust, at great length and with great horror, the limits of their morality as well as mortality. The culprit may or may not be a band of pagan Mexicans, a flesh-eating plant, bacteria, or contagion. More crucially, it's the travelers' carefully deconstructed humanity—spacey Stacy's magical mode of decision making, Jeff's heartless pursuit of the most rational course of action. When the latter suggests they go Donner on one of their party, it's a measure of how effectively Smith's sealed the exits that we're sure he's got the right idea. Carla Blumenkranz


The Sound of No Hands Clapping
By Toby Young
Da Capo, 288 pp., $24.95

After his abortive attempt to take the New York publishing world by storm, "crazed self-publicist" Young returned to London and licked his wounds while writing the memoir How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. In the wake of that book's modest success, Young finds himself fielding calls from Hollywood bigwigs interested in working with him—including one so powerful he's referred to as "________" to avoid possible litigation. Immediately, delusions of a career as a wildly successful screenwriter fill his head before he manages to botch every opportunity presented to him. So begins the next chapter in Young's career as the most successful professional failurist imaginable. Kosiya Shalita


Thong Nation
By Henry Sutton
Serpent's Tail, 187 pp., $14.99

Unfolding in chapters as brief as the lacy undergarments from Agent Provocateur, Thong Nation gleefully follows the randy exploits of one big, not-so-happy, half-illegitimate family through a wet hot British summer deserving of a Serge Gainsbourg soundtrack. Old or young, married or single, these punters and slappers fantasize constantly about swapping bedmates like playing cards and finding the next great shag. Whether it's shopping for a new marital aid, whiling away the hours at a strip club, or attending a neighborhood barbecue that ends in a drunken game of show-me-yours, everyone is absolutely gagging for it. K.S.


West of Jesus
By Steven Kotler
Bloomsbury, 261 pp., $23.95

Kotler's tale starts slow and then, like a seasoned surfer calibrating his board to his ride, monumentally catches stride. It starts with the author, an out-of-work journalist, searching for a story, a journey, a question—anything to keep his life afloat—and seizing on the twice-heard legend of a mystical surfer who, with a human-bone scepter, controls the waves and the weather. What boarder, or writer, wouldn't want to discover the wand that conducts all confluence and coincidence? So Kotler becomes his own Conductor, piecing together the science of snowstorms and surf mechanics, immigration legislation and General Hospital, with increasing fluency. There's a serious rush to feeling the writer and the story peak, in perfect synchroneity. Call it mysterioso or the oceanic feeling, what Kotler's seeking is nothing less than the big explanation. C.B.

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