DIRT RICH. By Clark Howard. St. Martin's. 521 pp. $18.95.
IF SOMEONE said "Texas" to me and told me to free-associate, like most people, I'd say, "Mini-series." They do things different there from regular folk -- the way they were meant to be done: Think big, work hard, love hard, chicken- fry steak, talk slow, gamble it all. It's 1918 and Sam Sheridan's fresh from the glory of fighting in France, while his girl, Georgia, has been doing all she can to stay unchaste until her man returns. They're all set to live a modest married life in Kansas City when Sam inherits 100 acres of scrub land in East Texas, and they pack up and head south. Sam tries to find out who has left him the land, why the town treats him like dirt, and who in cotton-pickin's name is Pete Spence, the nasty cattleman-millionaire, ad why he's hot to buy Sam's land at a price five times what it's been valued at.
The answer to this last question is, of course, oil -- black gold, Texas tea. With hardworking friends, savvy and a maniacal determination for vengeance, Sam strikes it big -- I mean Texas big. Admirably, money doesn't turn Sam into another Spence; the former helps anyone who has ever done him a good turn, even if it means smaller profits for Sheridan Oil. As always, don't you know, there's a price to pay: Georgia, having lost interest in workaholic Sam, eventually breaks his heart.
Except for tiresome depictions of most of the female characters as starved for sex, what you got here is one of them great big epics with a great big heart.
THE DEEP END. By Joy Fielding. Doubleday. 303 pp. $16.95.
EACH TIME I got cocky enough to think, now I've figured out who's stalking Long Island housewife Joanne Hunter, I realized Joy Fielding had duped me into taking the bait. For all I knew, I might as well have been standing in the deep end of Hunter's cavernous swimming pool, an ominous abyss in her backyard and the setting of this thriller's climax.
Joanne's life is unremarkable: Her father is dying slowly in an old-age home; her daughters are putting her through the usual adolescent tumble; and husband Paul moves out because he must -- guess? -- find himself. That's when the phone starts ringing. The caller promises unpleasantness, in a voice psychotically calm. "Read the morning paper, Mrs. Hunter," the voice says, instructing Joanne to check out a story about the grisly murder of another Long Island housewife. The caller narrates her life with up-to-the minute details: "Your husband's gone, Mrs. Hunter . . . Isn't that so, Mrs. Hunter?"; her new burglar alarm brings no solace ("Your new locks won't keep me out . . . Sweet dreams, Mrs. Hunter."); and even her best friend begins to doubt Joanne's sanity. As the calls grow more explicit -- "I'm coming for you, Mrs. Hunter" -- the strings of Joanne's life unravel.
Fielding masterfully manipulates our expectations. The truth is, she spit out my armchair-sleuthing like just so many wrong numbers. When the inevitable showdown comes, it's a doozy, and I hope, when the caller's identity is eventually revealed, you'll feel as stupid as I did.
TOURIST SEASON. By Carl Hiaasen. Putnam. 272 pp. $15.95.
THE HUM and clang of the electronic doors were enough to split your skull, but the mayhem in the lobby was worse. . . . (It) was crawling with bitter, bewildered souls, each on the sad trail of a loser." Such is the scene in the lobby of the Dade County Jail, a place where Brian Keyes spends a lot of time.
Formerly a reporter, Keyes has gotten sick of writing about all Miami's sleazoids, so he's become a private eye, so he can pick and choose his sleazoids. When a vacationing Shriner turns up missing and the only thing the cops can locate is the poor guy's fez, his old lady asks if Keyes'll help find her husband. A couple of other out-of-towners disappear and suddenly no one wants to come to Miami. Then one of Keyes' old newspaper pals, a real crusader, rounds up a bunch of certified loonies and starts a revolutionary group called Las Noches de Diciembre ("The Nights of December"), only some wet reporter calls them Las Nachos.
Keyes' pal decides no one's going to flub the next splash he makes, the one where he promises to abduct Miami's most sacred virgin, the Orange Bowl Queen. It's Keyes' job to keep tabs on the girl, only he hadn't counted on falling so hard for her baby hazels. He lets his guard down like a good bodyguard shouldn't and then suddenly he's not just trying to save Miami from mindless terrorism but he's also fighting to save the girl because he loves her.
Tourist Season is an improbable but energetic thriller. Picture The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight going to a taping of The Jackie Gleason Show, getting offended by one of the sketches, and then registering their displeasure -- am I making myself clear? -- and you'll start to get an idea of what these Nachos are all about.
LOVE IS A DURABLE FIRE. By Brian Burland. Norton. 558 pp. $16.95.
IF YOU'RE James Berkeley, your 13th year hasn't exactly been your best: You've just left your beloved Bermuda, all sun and friendliness, for blustery, war-torn England and the horrors of public school, and you're entering on adolescence.
Boarding school transforms James, an acutely sensitive chap, into a leader and top cricket player while continuing to nourish his and his classmates' childhood traumas. If I read this book correctly, the signet of one's manhood at an English public school seems to be that every boy wants to have had his fanny whipped with a switch, but no one actually wants to go through with it.
Love Is a Durable Fire, despite its unfortunate title, takes some admirable risks and plumbs James' heart genuinely. His story alternates with that of his eldest brother, Chris, the celebrated RAF pilot whom James worships. Chris, shot down over occupied France, falls in love with Piquette, while hundreds of miles away, James is suffering through the lustful throes of pubescence. Meanwhile, Chris, on the run, grows increasingly unhinged as he discovers that, for him, love and war are incompatible. This is an often affecting story of brothers going in opposite directions.
THE MASAKADO LESSON. By William P. Kennedy. St Martin's. 312 pp. $15.95.
J.P. TOOLE, who swindled Citibank, netting himself a million-plus and a three- to-five breather at Harrisburg, is free, at the U.S. government's behest. Seems Fujii, a Japanese maverick, is about to blow us away with some new supercomputer technology, and Toole, along with supercomputer jock Karen Albert, are assigned to steal the computers' codes. Toole gets double-crossed and triple- crossed by all, only to show us, by book's climax, that he deserves his reputation as ultimate con man. Albert, unable to break into the computer, tries the more personal approach, attempting to lure the code out of Fujii by interfacing with him. Although the book is marred by clich,e characters, the thrill is in the race to find the password, noodle around with the software, and high-tail it out of Tokyo before Toole and Albert get turned into next week's sashimi.
And, listen, just because the Computer Age is here and, with it, the invasion of fiction by computer heroes and villains, doesn't mean we have to let machines push us around:
"She . . . reclaimed the keyboard. 'Oh eight . . . twelve . . . forty-one,' she mouthed.
"'Incorrect password,' the computer answered . . .
"'Oh seven . . . twelve . . . forty-one.'
"'Incorrect password,' the machine mocked . . .
"Then he told Karen, 'Try the name . . . ' She did, and once again the computer rejected the signal . . . "
That's where I take a hammer to the thing.