NONFICTION

Glen Baxter Returns to Normal, by Glen Baxter (Random House, $10). The phrase "off-the-wall," tired though it is, seems to have been invented for this cartoonist. "English wit and humor, Pictorial" reads the entry for the Library of Congress card catalog on this new paperback and that pretty much says it. The London-based artist produces some creations that are in their way logical and self-evident, like the drawing that goes with the caption, "The best part of the day was the singalong round the smouldering remains of the scoutmaster's luggage . . .." Far more recherche but with its own internal logic: "Tex spent many long hours contemplating the Camembert."

Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present, edited by Margaret Busby (Ballantine, $19.95). Here is, as our reviewer said in 1992, "a stunning wealth of writing" by women known and unknown, from the prose of Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange to the poems, speeches and narratives of slaves. Now affordably presented by Ghanaian editor and writer Margaret Busby in this handsome 1000 page volume, the collection is "a magnificent starting place for any reader interested in becoming part of the collective enterprise of discovering and uncovering the silenced, forgotten, and underrated voices of black women." Busby includes many surprising entries that are refreshing for their faraway origins yet familiar in the sentiments they convey. Take, for instance, the impressions of Julia Berger, a young Afro-German woman, as she travels through Africa: "When I went there I thought the people would be darker. What I didn't expect was for them to call out 'Whites' after us. They said 'Toubab,' which means 'Stranger,' but in a friendly manner, and the children waved and laughed. I had expected them to accept me as one of their own . . .. Here they shout 'Black.' There they shout 'White.' Where does one really belong?"

Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy, by Jay Tolson (University of North Carolina, $16.95). Tolson, editor of the Wilson Quarterly, sees Walker Percy as a moralist as well as a novelist and philosopher. The author of The Moviegoer "saw his work," Tolson writes, "as a form of knowledge, an essay toward understanding what would help him live his life." The author's reflections on the nature of happiness may have been inspired by the unhappy events of his childhood -- the suicide of his father, a successful Birmingham attorney, and then the death of his mother, who drove her car into a Mississippi bayou. In The Last Gentleman, Percy's hero muses about a similar Southern clan: "It was an honorable and violent family, but gradually the violence had been deflected and turned inward." Dire events did seem to haunt the family: as an intern in pathology, Percy contracted tuberculosis. In his early thirties, recovered, he abandoned medicine and decided to become a Catholic and a writer. The success in 1961 of Percy's first published novel, which won the National Book Award, astonished both the author and his famous publisher Alfred A. Knopf, who had low hopes for The Moviegoer. When Percy appeared on the Today show, the interviewer repeatedly addressed him as Dr. Walker. Through his career Percy was plagued by depression which he sometimes called "Louisiana swamp rot." Once while recovering from hepatitis, melancholy and an inability to work, he wrote his friend from boyhood in Greenville, Miss., Shelby Foote, "Your friend, William Faulkner, said many foolish things but he said one true thing: if a writer doesn't write, he is sure to commit moral outrages." Nearing his death, trying new drug combinations for his cancer, he wrote, "Dying, if that's what it comes to, is no big thing, since I'm ready for it, am prepared for it by the Catholic faith . . . What is a pain is not even the pain but the nuisance. It is a tremendous bother (and expense) to everyone."

Letters at 3 a.m., By Michael Ventura (Spring Publications, P.O Box 22069 Dallas, Tx. 75222; $16.50). Michael Ventura is a rowdy regional writer (Los Angeles) who deserves a wider audience. This collection of essays, most of them written for the L.A. Weekly (a newspaper on the order of Washington's City Paper -- except thicker), includes a look at the 1989 San Francisco earthquake (Ventura happened to be north on a visit when it struck) and "In Defense of Alcohol." "Most of what you read now about alcohol and addiction leaves out how marvelous it can feel to be drunk," he writes, "an omission that, as the addiction theorists would say, amounts to denial." Among his "Solutions to Everything" is this bit of advice: "Listen to the voices. The wee inner voices. Even if they don't speak, even if they only breathe a little, like dirty phone calls. Do anything they tell you to do except rape, kill, or pillage. (The voices make mistakes sometimes, but they don't make boring mistakes.)"