Roberto Bolaño's last words

Roberto Bolaño:
The Last Interview
And Other Conversations
Introduced by Marcela Valdes
Melville House: 124 pp., $14.95 paper

Roberto Bolaño is your wake-up call; the alarm that goes off whether or not you intended to set it. In many ways, this book of interviews, including the last one that ran in Playboy in 2003 before he died, at age 50, of liver failure, is more fun to read than his novels: His fictions crush that little word and send the "F," "U" and "N" skittering off in different directions. In the novels, poets betray their cultures; writers are serial killers; writers collude with totalitarian regimes even in their sleep and their silence. In the interviews, you can breathe; there is a little space between the writing life and the reality, say, of 430 women and girls murdered in Ciudad Juárez, the subject of Bolaño's last novel, "2666." Bolaño, a founder of the Infrarealist movement in Mexico (think Dada), rejects the choice between fantasy and realism that most Latin American writers face in perpetuity. He says the critic must, first and foremost, be a reader. He tells us, enigmatically, about the difference between a writer and an author. He reminds us that people in power know nothing about literature (they can't have everything!). He says he is less embarrassed by his poetry than by his prose. He says underdeveloped cultures can afford only great literature. He says, given the choice between politics and literature, that he would rather have a library than a ticket to anywhere (even communist Russia). He says that when he was growing up in Valparaiso (Bolaño was born in Chile), his parents made the mistake of giving him a pair of roller skates. It was a city of hills: "Every time I put the skates on it was as if I was trying to commit suicide."

The Theory of Light
and Matter
Andrew Porter
Vintage Contemporaries: 178 pp., $14
The vertiginous stories in Andrew Porter's "The Theory of Light and Matter" are not what they appear to be. On the surface, like thin ice on a frozen river, they are suburban tales -- missives from the culture of contempt. Underneath, it's fast-moving water: motives and thoughtlessness and life-changing mistakes. The only thing to grab onto (too bad for us and bad news for humanity in general) is relationships. Porter explores the relationship between friends, ages 10 and 11 (one falls into a hole and dies); between a son and his unstable father; between an exchange student and the people who are supposed to be responsible for him; between a boy and his notorious older brother; between a student and her professor. It is pitiful how much the characters depend on these fragile bonds. Trust is elusive. Free us from them -- the reader runs, screaming from suburbia. But all around, on the outskirts Porter barely mentions, are deserts. Porter will pare his writing down (this is his first collection). Then, heaven help us, we'll be left to depend on his mercy as it matures.

Settled in the Wild
Notes From the Edge of Town
Susan Hand Shetterly
Algonquin: 240 pp., $21.95
Reading, I know you'll agree, often requires antidotes. Like drinking a glass of wine after a too-strong cup of coffee (and then another glass of wine, followed by more coffee). Voices like Susan Hand Shetterly's are soothing. You read Roberto Bolaño; you get agitated, disoriented. Shetterly puts a hand on your forearm and says, come walk along the Maine coast. Let's consider other species, eels and hummingbirds. Sure, there are memories and a little pain -- a failed marriage, two hopeful kids raise children in a cabin on practically nothing. Guess what: It was worth it. Unlike the locals, she admits, they did not make their living on the water. "We were littoral people, waders, summertime swimmers who spent hours beside the water and short spurts in it, and breathed in its smell that blew into our woodlot, that bitter, life-giving astringency."

Salter Reynolds is a critic and writer in Los Angeles.