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Living in the U.S.A.

From the school of hard knocks.



By Kent Haruf

Knopf, 300 pp., $24.95

For those who made Kent Haruf's Plainsong a bestselling novel in 1999, the big-hearted, hard-working, unmarried McPheron brothers are back doing what they do best: cattle-ranching and caring for everybody in sight. Back too: the young woman with child the brothers took in when she had nowhere to go: kindly Victoria and darling daughter Katie. As for the others who populate the town of Holt, Colorado, and the pages of Haruf's new novel, Eventide, they range from the well-meaning to the dastardly.

Among the former: a supersensitive 11-year-old who is wise and responsible way beyond his years. Among the latter: a no-count drifter who can't keep a job or a lid on his explosive temper. Occupying the middle ground: an abandoned wife and mother who bakes cookies when she isn't downing gin and smoking up a storm; a husband and wife on welfare who turn their trailer into a pigsty and their kids into victims of child abuse; a nurse who turns out to be a barfly; a social worker who turns out to be a sexed-up godsend for Raymond McPheron; and assorted other examples of small-town middle America at its neighborly best.

Haruf writes lovingly -- perhaps too lovingly -- of this landscape, its ranchers and townspeople, from the courteous do-gooders to the raunchiest deadbeats. What's missing is true grit, a deeper look into what does and doesn't make this place tick. Soap opera won't do. -- Leonard Gill

Kent Haruf reads from and signs Eventide at Square Books in Oxford on Thursday, July 15th, at 5 p.m.

So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star:

Dispatches from the Belly of the Beast

By Jacob Slichter

Broadway Books, 240 pp., $21.95

Ever hear of a band called Semisonic? Neither have I. Apparently, they had a hit, "Closing Time," in 1998 and struggled for a follow-up but never found one. Anyway, their drummer, Jacob Slichter, kept tour diaries of his travels with the band and even read some excerpts from them on NPR. An editor or two helped him shape and expand the diaries into So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, which purports to be an everyband primer on the glories and pitfalls that await any rock group naive and unlucky enough to sign a long-term contract with a major record label.

In Semisonic's case, the label was MCA (referred to by Slichter and other insiders as "Music Cemetery of America"), which went under during the major-label buyout/shakeout of a few years back. Semisonic was dropped shortly before MCA's demise and is now playing live again and hunting for another record deal. From what Slichter has to relate about the band's miserable label dealings, however, I hope the poor bastards don't find one. Why would they want to go through the whole wretched ordeal again, only to end up dropped, hitless, and in financial debt to yet another mercenary record label? Guess the rock-and-roll dream dies hard even when you've been through the wringer and landed back in obscure bankruptcy. Hell yeah, keep on rockin' by all means and at any cost, right?

This reviewer (and drummer) knows a thing or two about the weird world of indie labels, having recorded for a few of them. True, the indie-label ghetto is full of huckster/hustler owners and burned-out, bitter recording "artists," but after reading Slichter's pitiful saga in major-label land, working with indie-label bandits seems positively refreshing.

Slichter is a self-effacing, likable writer who can turn out chuckle-inducing prose. One only wishes he would open his eyes a bit wider and trade his drumsticks for a postman's uniform or some other job with better pay and prospects. Entertaining and scary, this cautionary tale. -- Ross Johnson


By Olympia Vernon

Grove Press, 249 pp., $22

A 13-year-old girl named Logic. A mother named Too, a midwife and maid. A father named David, who repeatedly rapes the girl. A female neighbor named George, a prostitute. George's son named, by Logic, "the tallest," a transvestite in training. This is rural Valsin County, Mississippi, in Olympia Vernon's new novel, Logic, a post-Faulknerian dreamscape of pseudoprofundities and suffocating pseudopoetry. I got as far as Logic's meditation on the tallest's pituitary gland. -- LG

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