FIRST FICTION

Jim Kokoris' amiable first novel--about a suburban Chicago kid whose family ends up winning the lottery--is so packed with zany Americana that you fear it might burst: There are troops of sushi-gobbling Civil War reenacters, a motor-mouthed producer of Hollywood B-movies, a freeloading has-been actor named Sylvanius famous for his vampire roles, a Tennessee redneck named Bobby Lee (after the general, one assumes) and a manipulative country club matron with an improbable bust line. But as these wacky caricatures come swirling around young Ted Pappas in the wake of his family's unlikely windfall (which occurs sometime after his mother perishes in a car accident), we realize that Kokoris has his stitches securely sewn. What develops is a watertight, and quite amusing, story of how a family manages to come together under the trying circumstance of suddenly winning $190 million--and the recently unveiled knowledge that Ted is not, in fact, the biological son of his kind yet distant Civil War historian dad. In fact, the ne'er-do-well Bobby Lee is Ted's biological father, and after arriving on the scene in a menacing pickup truck, he becomes intent on using Ted to get a piece of the Pappas fortune, eventually stealing off with poor Ted and heading south. If it sounds farfetched, it is. But Kokoris manages to create a convincing interplay between Ted and his adoptive father, a feckless, besieged fellow forced to make stand for his kin. The result is this weird romp, which can be as stirring as it is absurd.

*

THE DARK ROOM, By Rachel Seiffert, Pantheon: 278 pp., $24

Rachel Seiffert is an English writer living in Germany. It's perhaps her position as nonnative insider that lets her roam so freely around the German psyche--that famously abashed, veiled and guilt-ridden thing--in this probing novel about the legacy of the Third Reich as experienced by everyday Germans. Reading "The Dark Room," you feel a bit like a film developer watching images fading into focus before your eyes--images you've anticipated but have never clearly seen: It is simply that rare to experience the tragedy and horror of World War II through German eyes, and Seiffert gives us pictures as evocative as they are ghostly, as fragmented as they are telling. The novel unfolds as a triptych: There's the story of Helmut, a deformed boy who works in a wartime Berlin photo shop and who becomes obsessed with the gradual exodus out of the city, snapping furtive pictures of unknown faces leaving Berlin. Next, we follow a girl named Lore, who leads her brothers and sisters on a dangerous, illegal journey through occupied Germany and doesn't understand the depth of her parents' involvement in the Reich. And finally we encounter Micha, who, in the late 1990s, journeys to Belarus to canvass the locals about Nazi atrocities, desperate--and yet terrified--to uncover information about his grandfather, an SS veteran. "Will you still love him if he killed people?" his Turkish girlfriend asks, tapping into the ongoing agony of these ordinary people--divorced from their families, from their heritage, from themselves--whom Seiffert brilliantly captures in her lens.

*

FIELD GUIDE, By Gwendolen Gross, Henry Holt: 278 pp., $23

Ah, wilderness. This confident debut from Gwendolen Gross lives up to her cleverly compact title, bringing the reader--and its graduate-student heroine, Annabel Mendelssohn--into very close contact with the Australian rain forest. Amid kookaburras, tree kangaroos, assassin spiders and amethystine pythons, Annabel scans the treetops for spectacled fruit bats--her area of expertise. But it's the areas in which Annabel has little professional training that provide the richest observations in this field guide: Annabel is preoccupied with the recent drowning death of her brother, Robert; with her place in the family pecking order as compared to her vaguely discontented suburban sister, Alice; and, most of all, with professor John Goode, a charismatic Aussie with one blue eye and one brown. After Goode disappears into the forest, Annabel and her colleagues fear that he may have gone the way of the dodo, and the ensuing search becomes a suggestive commentary on the elusive nature of scientific observation, the evanescence of living things and the opportunity of hooking up with your favorite professor's son (he comes to assist the search). Gross gamely hacks her way through the underbrush of this treacherous Eden with great aplomb, offering up a lively report comparing and contrasting the virgin rain forest with the tangled thickets of human desire, the clamorous society of guano-generating fruit bats with our own, and showing that the path to wisdom is paved with bloodsucking leeches that get stuck between your toes.

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