In the title story of this remarkable debut collection, a 12-year-old boy named Eddie watches his feckless father being beaten up by co-workers at a company picnic. As Eddie struggles to find respect for his father and an identity for himself--he likes to smoke cigarettes in front of the bathroom mirror while snarling "And who the hell are you supposed to be?" at his own reflection--he formulates an opinion of his can-do mother that could apply to Susan Perabo, the author of these wise and astringent stories: "She had the gift of making brutal honesty sound like the lightest comment ever made." Like Eddie, Perabo's characters are always getting caught up in weird acts of role-playing that sharpen, rather than dull, the world's impact. In "Reconstruction," a mugging victim fakes amnesia in order to worm his way back into the life of his estranged wife; in "Thick as Thieves," an aging Hollywood actor undergoes a bewildering visit from his crusty Maine father, who now fancies himself a master thief complete with ski mask; in "Explaining Death to the Dog," a woman who has lost her baby attempts to teach her German shepherd the meaning of death; and, in "The Measure of Devotion," a Gettysburg tour guide strives to maintain his professionalism while driving the harping mother of an old flame--and her two rotten grandkids--around the battlefield. Perabo, the first woman to play NCAA baseball, is a true natural who delivers tough little miracles with seemingly effortless grace.*
ESCAPE FROM FILM SCHOOL By Richard Walter; St. Martin's: 244 pp., $22.95
Richard Walter, the head of UCLA's screenwriting program, kicks off this good-natured send-up of Hollywood careerism with a flash forward in which his hero and narrator, a journeyman screenwriter named Stuart Thomas, relates the events surrounding his own demise: "I wish I had died in some Hollywoody way: metal-on-the-highway, sex-drugs, murder-suicide. The sorry truth is I choked to death on sushi." Before being felled by a piece of maguro, however, Stuart spends four delirious decades negotiating the hyperboles, anti-climaxes and sorry truths of Tinseltown. Arriving in Los Angeles in (what else?) a VW bus in 1966, Stuart dodges Vietnam at the USC film school, where he marries a manipulative coed named Veronica and ends up collaborating with her (she takes the credit) on such films as "Brutal Bad-Ass Angels," an exploitation flick featuring a cast of effete, cognac-sipping Hell's Angels. Stuart drifts along writing scripts for canceled television shows, enduring the sight of Jerry Lewis in a diaper, becoming the "Jewish Mother of Screenwriting" as a UCLA professor and living to see "Brutal Bad-Ass Angels" resuscitated first by the French ("Les Anges Terribles de l'Inferno") and, finally, by his daughter, Raynebeaux, who produces a shockingly successful series of remakes. It's all a bit over the top, but Walter gives Stuart the benefit of an anthropologist's eye and a disregard for taking anything too seriously. The reader can't help but get caught up in the guilty straight-to-video pleasures that abound here.