<i> Susan Salter Reynolds is an assistant editor of Book Review</i>

TOO COOL. By Duff Brenna (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday: 264 pp., $22.95

This about covers it--how the goodness in a child can be buried so far down he ends up killing and raping and stealing and destroying any chances he might have for a real life. Triple E is 16 when “Too Cool” opens. He’s just escaped from reform school, stolen an Oldsmobile and, with his girlfriend Jeanne, his 14-year-old cousin Ava and the man of her dreams, Tom, is heading out for the territory. The territory is not warm and exciting. It is Colorado; it is cold, a blizzard is building and the four cool kids have no money.

When they run out of gas, Triple E steals some. Ava runs off. Soon, the police are after them. They head up a country road and get stuck in the snow. Tom goes for help and is not seen again. Triple E goes for help and in a hypothermia-induced stupor reviews his life thus far: a series of stupid and violent moves with a little bit of deep poetry peeking out now and then. He can run (“Nature itself does not abhor a Triple E,” he thinks), and he can love: He loves Jeanne. Duff Brenna is perfectly restrained in his affection for Triple E; he is so good at burying this boy’s potential, so good at not blaming anything obvious for Triple E’s sad life, that you just wish the snow would keep falling and the terrible ice age that so deforms children would pass.

THE EXES. By Pagan Kennedy (Simon & Schuster: 204 pp., $23)


Hank and Lilly, Shazia and Walt live in this rock ‘n’ roll novel set in Boston. Hank loves Lilly because she has “so much white trash poetry about her.” He’s just been kicked out of the Ancient Astronauts (a band) over “artistic differences.” He teaches Lilly how to play guitar while they are breaking up, and Lilly has the idea of starting a band called the Exes, composed only of broken-up couples. They find Shaz, a Pakistani bisexual bassist who has just left the band Sluggo. Walt, her ex-boyfriend-drummer-science geek, follows, and they are very hot until interpersonal dynamics threaten the good thing, the way interpersonal dynamics always do. Lilly’s new weepy boyfriend, Dieter, is jealous of Hank, and band members are having a hard time remaining exes in their motel rooms. Walt is just out of the “loony bin” and is still in love with Shaz. “Maybe it would be possible,” Lilly thinks, “to invent some new kind of relationship without all the yelling and the blame, without the fear of being dumped.” The book has a sweet Boston college-town feel to it--where kids stay kids longer than most other places.

THE LAKE DREAMS THE SKY. By Swain Wolfe (Cliff Street Books/HarperCollins: 334 pp., $23)

Let’s call it “Bridges of Madison County” Syndrome--a tendency to weepiness followed by the fury of being so obviously manipulated. Here strong true love, sorely tested in one life, is passed down in ghostly form through generations. Sometime right after World War II, Cody, a handyman and painter, is passing through a lake town in Montana when his 1938 Dodge breaks down. While it is being fixed, he meets Rose, a half-Indian waitress. He is searching for “a life that feels real,” and she is watching her grandmother’s generation of Crow Indians pass into the modern era. The local society is not ready for an Indian and a white drifter to have an affair right under their noses. A picture Cody painted of Rose bending over the lake is found in the 1990s by a young woman who is visiting her grandmother, Ana. Ana has an intimate knowledge of the romance, and her storytelling helps the modern girl figure out what is missing from her cell-phone life. It’s an evocative story. If you’re in the mood, it’ll make you wistful; if you’ve got the syndrome, don’t touch it.

INGRATITUDE. By Ying Chen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 154 pp., $20)


Yan-Zi plans her own suicide, the only escape she can imagine from her mother. And this mother is a doozy: “Had I known you before you were born,” she tells Yan-Zi, “I would have had an abortion!” She grips her daughter’s hand crossing the street, even when Yan-Zi grows up. She insists that falling in love will make her daughter “forget her origins.” A love without passion is preferable; true love would imply ingratitude to her parents. As for dad: “I lived in fear of bothering him. . . . [H]is work was indispensable to the welfare of the human race, or at least to the fame of our family.” Yan-Zi survives by dreaming of her own death: “Not only did I live badly. . . . I died badly. By crushing my body, that stupid truck completely transformed the appearance of things. Mother has an easier time handling an accident than a suicide.”

“Traitors to their mothers,” she writes by way of a moral to the story, “will continue to be vagabonds, whether dead or alive, to be excluded from the cycle of life.” This venomous little novel has much of the feel of “L’Etranger”: a character stuck at an emotional impasse, an author who hammers at the block of marble concealing his character. It takes a kind of willpower to portray what the poet William Blake called our “mind-forged manacles,” and Ying Chen doesn’t waver.

THE IRON BRIDGE. By David Morse (Harcourt Brace: 436 pp., $25)

Maggie Foster is 29 and living in the dystopia of our future (quite close, actually--2043) known as Ecosophia--a commune in the Southwest that is a cross between Santa Monica and “Waterworld.” There are no children. Denizens wear natural fibers and eat hydroponically grown organic foods. They wear gas masks to leave the bubble. Maggie travels back to Shropshire, England, in 1773, part of a project to put industrialism on a less destructive track. She studies the personalities and plans involved in the creation of the world’s first iron bridge, which will cross the Severn River, and gets a job in the Quaker household of the owner of the largest ironworks in England, the dreamer behind the bridge. If Maggie can get the bridge built incorrectly, it will not survive a coming earthquake, postponing the Industrial Revolution.


The threads of the novel are woven in an unobtrusive, gentle way. Perhaps the truest is Maggie’s impression of life before industrialization, the fertility of the land and the people and their edenic ignorance.