FICTION

The Fun House , by Lynda Barry (Harper Perennial, $6.95). In this book of cartoons about growing up, Lynda Barry manages to capture the best and the worst of childhood. Hers is no sentimental vision of children at play, it's the real thing -- children telling tales on each other; children lying to impress their friends; children as victims of parents and other adults; children suffering through boring classes with boring teachers. To call Barry a cartoonist is to diminish her work; the best of the four- and six-panel stories here are almost literature, literature that culminates in an unbearably poignant insight.

Never Come Morning , by Nelson Algren (Four Walls Eight Windows, $7.95). Like James T. Farrell of Studs Lonigan fame, Nelson Algren wrote about the hard lives of what Edmund Wilson once called the boys in the backroom -- gamblers, drifters, hustlers, drug addicts, fighters. Gritty naturalism was the style. This novel, his second, follows the career of a Polish fighter who drifts into petty crime. A straightforward story, but one of such power that Jean-Paul Sartre translated it into French and Kurt Vonnegut contributes an introduction to this edition.

The First Thing Coming , by Keith Abbott (Coffee House Press, P.O. Box 10870, Minneapolis, MN 55458; $9.95). These 22 stories begin with a group of boys and girls in late adolescence. High school seniors, life in their small Washington state town seems to offer little. In one story, "Mary Lou and the Perfect Husband," a girl is ridiculed because everyone thinks she is pregnant. In another, "Spanish Castle," a boy takes a girl to a tough nightclub, where he barely escapes a beating and she discovers she has not managed to make herself immune from the lure of the gangs. Subsequent sections, "After Graduation" and "Ten Years Later" show members of the same group, some having changed and others still the same.

The Conversions

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Tlooth , by Harry Mathews (Carcanet, $8.50 each). Harry Mathews' novels -- these two along with The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and the recent Cigarettes -- are all comic extravaganzas that play mockingly with every device of fiction; here are strange names, lists, puzzles, tongue-in-cheek anecdotes, absurd events, the whole fireworks display of modern fiction. Both of the above books are roughly what one might call picaresque travelogues that carry the hero to far-out places where he encounters even farther out people and becomes involved in bizarre, surrealist adventures. The pair are hard to describe, but they are classics of their kind.

Never Take Your Cat to a Salad Bar: New Sylvia Cartoons , by Nicole Hollander (Vintage, $5.95). Brash and prone to spending hours in her bathtub, Sylvia is a cartoon heroine for the '80s. Acerbically inclined to note the shortcomings of men (in one cartoon, she asks, "If women have two 'x' chromosomes and men have 'xy' then a case could be made that the female is the basic human model, and that Eve came before Adam"), she also sits in front of her typewriter, pondering the vagaries of existence. Does the Miranda ruling, she asks, require lawyers to "appear in court wearing platform shoes and at least one piece of fruit in their hair"? Or is it "the accused who has to wear the banana"?

NONFICTION

Cities On a Hill: A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures , by Frances FitzGerald (Touchstone, $8.95). If there is an American myth that most of us believe in, it's probably that there'll always be one more place to go, a place where we can leave our old selves behind and become the persons we really are. In this book, Frances Fitzgerald examines four groups who formed communities dedicated to that proposition. They are gays in San Francisco's Castro district; Christian fundamentalists in Lynchburg, Va.; retirees in Sun City, Fla.; and the Rajneeshee of Oregon. Despite the disparate natures of these groups, FitzGerald writes that they all had one thing in common -- "They aimed to reinvent themselves."

Boot , by Daniel da Cruz (St. Martin's, $3.95). No one who experiences Marine basic training ever forgets it. Here a former Marine and journalist goes to Parris Island, S.C., to see if today's grunts measure up to those of the legendary past. His report on Platoon 1036's transition into a few good men will engulf veterans in waves of nostalgia.

The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes , by James Sutherland (Oxford, $7.95). Need a stocking stuffer for a bookish friend? Look no further. This anthology will delight any reader, for it displays authors turning savagely on their critics, bristling with barbed wit, spewing bile and vitriol. Lord Sandwich once told the 18th-century writer Samuel Foote that "I think you must either die of the pox, or the halter." "My Lord," replied Foote instantaneously, "that will depend upon one of two contingencies -- whether I embrace your lordship's mistress, or your lordship's principles." Less acerbic was the brilliant Ronald Knox, who used to suffer from insomnia at the age of four. When asked how he managed to occupy himself at night, he answered, "I lie awake and think about the past."

My Father and Myself , by J.R. Ackerley (Poseidon, $7.95). It's not every autobiography that is dedicated to the author's dog; nor is every father quite so remarkable as Ackerley Sr., who managed to establish two separate families without either finding about the other until his death. This autobiography is one of J.R. Ackerley's four small masterpieces (the others are My Dog Tulip, the novel We Think the World of You, and the travel journal about India Hindoo Holiday). For many years the brilliant literary editor of The Listener -- the arts magazine of British radio and television -- Ackerley was also the close friend of E.M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood and many of the best writers of his time. The determining factors of his life, though, were his father, his own homosexuality and a passionate attachment to his dog, in many ways the real love of his life. This story of the first two makes for one of the best pieces of writing, and finest autobiographies, of modern times.

Nero: The End of a Dynasty , by Miriam T. Griffin (Yale University Press, $13.95). Tacitus felt he had to apologize for the monotony of his Annals -- not a monotony of trivia but one of too much cruelty, assassination and folly. The central figure in this mesmerizing tedium was Nero, the last Julio-Claudian emperor, who is the subject of this new biography and history of his time. Laboring under an uncertain claim to the throne and subject to profound doubts as to his own worth, he staged ceremonial travesties that, instead of bearing witness to his glory, only made his defects more obvious.

Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia , revised, with a new introduction, by William Shawcross (Touchstone, $12.95). This is the searing history of the American bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, an episode that shocked the nation's conscience. As the author writes, "Across the fragile heart of Cambodia have paraded . . . many of the most frightful beasts to stalk the earth. Brutal civil war, superpower intervention . . . nationalism exaggerated into paranoid racism, fanatical and vengeful revolution, invasion, starvation and then, once again, unobserved civil war without end . . . . Cambodia was not a mistake; it was a crime."

Will the Gentleman Yield?: The Congressional Record Humor Book , by Bill Hogan and Mike Hill (Ten Speed Press/Tilden Press, $7.95). Here are 232 pages of bombast from the Hill. Mark Twain would have loved it. It was Twain who said, "Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." Not much in these pages detracts from that proposition. Consider this extract from a 1974 debate: "Mr. Eagleton. Mr. President, I always enjoy listening to my good friend, the Senator from Pennsylvania. He is able, he is articulate, and he can be, when he is at his best, obfuscating." A helpful index contains the names of 200 solons, present and past.

Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters , by John Waters (Vintage, $5.95). The scourge -- and lately the pride -- of Baltimore, John Waters is best-known as the auteur of such films as Pink Flamingos and Polyester. In this collection of wildly comic essays, he sends up Pia Zadora, Catholic censorship, National Enquirer, and Los Angeles. In this last piece he recommends arriving at Mann's Chinese Theatre at 6 a.m. in order to see "the small and oh-so-sick band of cultists who gather {there} to witness Natalie Wood's footprints fill with water as the janitor hoses down the cement." If you don't find that line perversely funny, this book's not for you.

The Oxford Book of Death , chosen and edited by D.J. Enright (Oxford, $8.95). Since Sleep is the brother of Death, what better bedside book than The Oxford Book of Death? Enright's quotations range from the Bible to Doctor Who, from definitions to epitaphs, from graveyards to revenants, making this, despite its seemingly macabre subject matter, an exceptionally lively anthology. Consider only the last words of the famous. The dying Voltaire reportedly observed, as the bedside lamp flared up, "What? The flames already?" The deaf Beethoven breathed his last, saying "I shall hear in Heaven." And Adam Smith, with business-like understatement, noted "I believe we must adjourn this meeting to some other place."

MYSTERIES

In La-La Land We Trust , by Joseph Campbell (Mysterious Press, $3.95). "He was a petty grifter. She was an amateur doxy thinking about turning pro. Their courtship was a case of mutual and benign deception." That kind of cynical (but accurate) characterization is typical of this startling mystery novel. Not for the faint-hearted, it features a detective hero named Whistler seeking the identity of a body (discovered beheaded) in Los Angeles. His quest leads him to the upper reaches of Hollywood society and an inside look at its denizens' unsavory tastes. This is a powerful and unsettling book.

Skinwalker , by Tony Hillerman (Harper Perennial, $3.95). Set in the desert of the Southwest, Skinwalker brings together two of Tony Hillerman's characters -- Tribal Police Officer Jim Chee and Lt. Joe Leaphorn. There is, of course, a real mystery to be solved here, but the real interest is Hillerman's depiction of Navajo culture and lore. The mystery centers on a skinwalker -- a witch with special powers believed capable of draining the life-energy from others.

Playing Catch-up , by A.B. Guthrie, Jr. (Bantam, $2.95). Guthrie is best-known for The Big Sky, his superb novel of mountain men and their fur-trading rendezvous in the 1830s, and The Way West, his Pulitzer-winning novel of the Oregon Trail migration. He is also a skilled mystery-writer and, now in his eighties, has produced another entry in his series featuring Montana sheriff Chick Charleston, who this time is on the trail of a call-girl killer.