THE PILOT'S WIFE. By Anita Shreve (Little, Brown: 284 pp., $23.95)
Infidelity in fiction these days has to compete with the daily news. The idea that you can trust someone who conducts a secret life parallel to the one you share with him or her wobbled its way as a story line through humor, fantasy and horror since the novel was little more than a gleam in a good liar's eye. But unlike a journalist, a novelist can steer your lascivious brain through the vicissitudes of infidelity.
Shreve has written an oddly gripping popular novel (meaning it is not experimental it has a conventional plot and pace) about the wife of an airplane pilot who discovers, after he is killed in a crash in Northern Ireland, that her husband had another life for several years. Kathryn is dense, which is what allows the plot to exist at all; she must put together a puzzle whose pieces have floated through her married life for a long time. When the plane goes down, in her efforts to aid the investigation, she discovers the truth. The truth doesn't make more of a difference in fiction than it does in the news, but Shreve has done a terrific job with an otherwise dull subject: the aching innards of a betrayed spouse.
THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY. By Samantha Gillison (Grove Press: 240 pp., $23)
Fiction is terrifying. The more you live in a world where people conceal their true nature, the more a novel that deftly exposes aspects of human nature can frighten you. Putting that book down can be like waking from a bad dream with a second chance at living a good life.
This astonishing first novel is subtle and exotic. Peter Campbell, a biologist, takes his wife, June, and their 6-year-old daughter, Taylor, to Papua New Guinea to gather data for his Harvard dissertation. They are not sure of the wisdom of taking Taylor, but their marriage is in trouble, and Peter needs to succeed at something, fast. Out in the field, everything is exaggerated: Peter's aloofness, June's controlling and her desperation to be loved by him and, most interestingly, Taylor's wild, native nature, which emerges as the shy girl scrambles to climb out of the rift between the mother and father. The shy girl disappears each day into the native village, learns the language (her parents do not) and founders in the morass between her mother and father. Various diseases attack each family member, and by the last third of the book, the impossibility of this family's survival is so absolute that the reader very much wants someone to die. It is the only way out of the inevitable jealousy and shrewishness and paranoia that come from a marriage in which one person loves so much more than the other.
THE SINALOA STORY. By Barry Gifford (Harcourt Brace: 240 pp., $22)
Ava Varazo is a carhop whore (and closet revolutionary). DelRay Mudo is a mechanic at Chifla Miguel's Motorcycle Repair in Guadeloupe. Thankful Priest is a "one-eyed, six-foot-seven, 380-poundformer professional football player . . . who enucleated his own eyeball . . . after ingesting Ecstasy at a teamparty." Indio Descato runs the best whorehouse in Sinaloa, La Casa Descato. The drugstore in Sinaloa stocks the "latest issue of Trackdown, the monthly report about activities of bounty hunters."
DelRay and Ava have a plan to kill Indio and steal the $500,000 under his bed. But Ava isn't exactly interested in a future with DelRay. She wants to use the money to free the people in her hometown in Mexico, La Villani, from capitalist oppression. After DelRay escapes from the trunk of the car the love of his life locks him in, he joins her in La Villani to fight the good fight with the local guerrillas, Las Gotas de Lluvia Incontables (the Countless Raindrops). Other things happen, in brief explosions that might flatten the average citizen and book buyer.
Gifford writes about the daily lives of characters who live on the Mexican-American border. He is the author of "Wild at Heart," which David Lynch made into a movie. His writing suffers a little from screenplay-itis, but the characters are Pynchon-like sketches, and the landscape leaves dust in your mouth.
LOVES THAT BIND. By Julian Rios . Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Alfred A. Knopf: 246 pp., $24)
Rios turns a trick: a novel composed of 26 letters describing 26 previous lovers to the woman who has abandoned him. He must not really want her back.
Each woman, A to Z, resembles a literary heroine, some, like Lolita, more obviously than others. ("She is a flowerbird, what a fluttering of petals, a winged spirit of the forest. I thought her no more than twelve or thirteen, an adolescent nymph!") They also resemble each other, because the one independent variable is a rejected man whose taste does not vary as much as he thinks it does.
Like many linguists, Rios has a good time writing, and that is infectious. He chuckles his way through the wordplay in the letters he writes to the woman he really wants, as he follows her from city to city. But a gimmick is a gimmick. The form must be transcended or the reader feels trapped within it. Getting the jokes is essential to transcending the form. That depends, quite brutally, on how well read you are.
SECRETS. By Nuruddin Farah (Arcade: 398 pp., $23.95)
Good fiction can give a reader tremendous insight into another culture. Farah, who is Somali, lives in Nigeria. This is not the first time that he has written to bring his culture home to us, but "Secrets" has a particular depth to it because it was written after his first visit to Somalia in 20 years.
The novel is set one week before the outbreak of civil war in Somalia, but it reaches back into the childhood of Kalaman, who runs a computer business in Mogadishu. His childhood sweetheart is Sholoongo, a wild and naughty girl who grows up to be a wild and naughty woman. Kalaman's wise grandfather is Nonno, who knows all the secrets of Kalaman's family, secrets that cause strange fissures that snake through the boy's life. These fissures rend the fabric of the family, the tribe, the culture and the country. The plot is rich and the language is superb, exotic and consciousness-expanding, even phrases as simple as: "We were much of a muchness, she and I." It's enough to make you homesick for a country that is not your own.