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These are the times--and the tomes--that try...

These are the times--and the tomes--that try men’s polls. Here we are, just days away from a presidential election, being bombarded by the message that our votes count, that the single individual whom we elect (OK, the married individual, always male, preferably with children) can, and will, make a difference. This is the season when we are asked to recall, and believe, what we learned in elementary school--that the right to vote is a privilege and a responsibility, the means to guarantee a better life for ourselves and generations to come.

But this is also the season of the dark best seller, the kind of story that gives us a reverse vicarious thrill: Compared to the landscapes of these books, littered with legal and emotional felonies, dull old daily life suddenly doesn’t look so bad. This is not envy fiction. Collectively, these books can put you off doctors, writers and bankers for life.

They certainly make it difficult to maintain your optimism about social change. If you buy one of these books, you might want to set it aside until after you’ve voted. It’s tough to be an idealist when confronted by men (hey, guys, you have to take the bad with the good) who seem bent on psychopathology regardless of whose administration is in power.

Take Simon Carmody, the widowed doctor in Killing Time in St. Cloud, by Judith Guest and Rebecca Hill (Delacorte Press: $17.95; 299 pp.). Guest, author of the relatively genteel “Ordinary People,” has taken off her suburban white gloves this time and delivered a gruesome little tale about a pillar of the community who turns out to be rotten to the core. Everyone in town thinks they know who was involved in the death of Simon’s adorable niece Molly--nasty Nick Uhler, who, we’ve learned in a flashback, liked to get girls pregnant back in high school and then desert them. But when Nick turns up dead, attention turns to Simon’s ne’er-do-well brother Charlie, or maybe his brother-in-law Tom. All the false leads give the authors plenty of time to trot out a parade of creeps and cretins; the only truly good soul, Marty, who was one of Nick’s castoffs and one of Simon’s patients, has a moral motor that takes an awfully long time to warm up.

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Still, “St. Cloud” nicely captures the incestuous, clubby nature of a small town that protects its own and barely tolerates the slightest deviant behavior. And Guest and Hill will surely get a footnote in the annals of mystery writing for coming up with one manifestation of Simon’s twisted mind that would be gut-wrenching it it weren’t so funny. Nimble surgeon Simon pulls off a particular slice-and-sew maneuver that makes you hope the book is turned into a movie--and pray that they don’t cast a Method actor in the part.

Mitla Pass by Leon Uris (Doubleday: $19.95; 488 pp.) is ostensibly about heroes, about men who embrace patriotism with perfervid intensity--and if that weren’t courage enough, the protagonist, writer Gideon Zadok, even has the nerve to turn his back on Hollywood to preserve his artistic integrity. It is 1956. Zadok, in the name of verisimilitude, waits to be dropped deep in the Sinai with the brave Lion’s Battalion for what could turn out to be an Israeli kamikaze mission. On the eve of battle, Uris wanders back in time--to show us not only Gideon’s growth as a writer but to fill in his family’s history as well.

The subtext seems to be that the artist is above government by mere mortals, whether they be shortsighted studio executives or a wife who balks at the notion of spending her adulthood chasing her husband’s muse all over the world.

Gideon Zadok may be able to make a great contribution publicly, but privately his life is a deceitful, non-monogamous mess, riddled with self-serving half-truths--and that, as Gary Hart can tell you, gets in the way of being a great man.

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But the real problem is that Gideon isn’t an enthusiastic enough cad to make his reformation meaningful. His gripes are such cliches that if he read himself in print, he’d beg for the chance to revise. Budd Schulberg can rest easy: “The Disenchanted” still stands as the definitive story of a Hollywood writer. That’s one obstacle Zadok can’t scale.


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