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AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL, By Moon Unit Zappa, Scribner: 284 pp., $14.95 paper

America Throne, born 1969, daughter of the famous, controversial painter Boris Throne, hippie royalty, star of this novel is not, prima facie, all that different from Moon Unit Zappa, daughter of the late Frank Zappa, famous anarchist musician, also hippie royalty. Boris, America recounts, died in hot pursuit of yet another woman, leaving America with her saintly mother (surrounded by a host of healers) and her brother, Spoonie. Mortified by the $2,000 check she accepts each month from her mother, America cannot figure out what she wants to be when she grows up: “[T]ry to find your own identity in the shadow of a certifiable ‘self-made’ genius.”

“I always wished I were raised a bottom feeder like you,” she says to the answering machine of the lover, Jasper, who has left her an inert, chocolate-craving puddle. “That way perhaps I’d understand better that the bottom isn’t so far to fall. You guys don’t seem to freak out over things like having no money. If I were raised with nothing, like all of you, perhaps then I’d be motivated to achieve, like all of you.” America is flattened when Jasper leaves. Her mother and her best friend try to prop her back up using channeling, feng shui and various spa treatments. But the problem turns out to more than blocked energy. America has to face her father’s death the old-fashioned way--in therapy.

This is a novel that could only be set in L.A. The breezy banter; the real or imagined feud between the city’s bureaucrats and the city’s artists; the fine, raw (sometimes flaunted) edges between rich and poor, the plain speaking about love and orgasms; but most of all, the possibility for recovery, which many people have been known to travel across the country for, make it a certifiable “Made in L.A.” novel.


THE ALTAR OF THE BODY, By Duff Brenna, Picador: 336 pp., $24

Duff Brenna is a master at capturing the helplessness of humans, particularly humans with “tough” written all over them. In this novel, the tough guy is a bodybuilder, Buck Root, who appears one day on his mild-mannered cousin’s doorstep with his wife, Joy, and her mother, Livia, in a near-dead Lincoln Continental. Buck has made it big: His ego is large; he cannot contain or control it. It houses various scars from his childhood: “When I was three, my father left my mother and she lost her mind. One day she dug a hole in the back yard. She took my hand and marched me outside and she gave me a hug, which made me delirious with joy .... When she picked me up and held me over the hole she had dug, I could see hatred in her eyes.” Saved by a neighbor, Buck never fully recovers from his mother’s attempt to kill him.

There are many kinds of hardness in the personalities in “The Altar of the Body”: the old mother, an ex-dancer who retreats into an erotic fantasy world of cowboy western dime store novels; a woman who has lost her baby daughter; and the narrator, cousin George, who has lived a grim life of quiet isolation until the arrival of his guests. He falls in love with Joy, giving her refuge from Buck’s cheating.

Things conspire with events, in the world Brenna has created, to impress upon a reader how sweaty and slow we are, how much like animals pacing in our cages: “She turned on the wipers,” he writes, describing a scene in which Joy helplessly forgives Buck, “and they slammed back and forth as if panicked by the snow.” I’ve heard that people read certain novels to escape reality. This is not one of them.

THE MARBLE QUILT: Stories, By David Leavitt, Houghton Mifflin: 224 pp., $25

“No wonder he grew up ugly, ill, ill-tempered!” a young man, reading classics and longing for his cousin in the same train car in David Leavitt’s “Crossing St. Gotthard” thinks of himself, “[h]e belonged to a different age. And now he wanted to cry out, so that all of Switzerland could hear him: I belong to a different age!” It is a cry that rings out in each of these stories, as characters strain against their culture, their times, their definitions of love and the sometimes suffocating constraints of their relationships.

“The Infection Scene” is a story that combines present-day San Francisco with an interpretation of the life of Lord Alfred Douglas, poet and lover of Oscar Wilde. Bosie, as Douglas was known, fairly bursts out of history in this story, as though Leavitt, true to the title of the collection, really were in the business of breathing life into marble statues.

In the title story, an older man is killed. The murderer uses pieces of marble the man has stolen from archeological sites. There is a bit of a warning here, like in Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.” Something to do with honesty and pure love.