MY FAVORITE WARD By Christopher John Farley Farrar Straus Giroux. 260 pp. $20
DURING a protracted discussion about the difference between commercial and literary fiction, novelist A.J. Verdelle said there is rarely any writing that falls between the two categories. My Favorite War is one of those rare jewels. It has everything a page-turner should, and it also has "layers" (the required ingredient of literary fiction, according to the above discussion): chapters that hurl you forward, three-dimensional characters who come in all colors and genders, contemporary hipness that will preserve well over time, not to mention intrigue, romance, equal-opportunity stereotypes, political correctness and incorrectness.
Thurgood Brinkman is a bored journalist at a "comic-book-colored" newspaper, headquartered in Washington, D.C., called National Now!, which bears more than a passing resemblance to USA Today. Thurgood is young, Ivy League and African-American, with white women bosses and no real girlfriend. He's smitten, sight unseen, with Sojourner Truth Zapader, a black woman who writes for the Metro section of The Washington Post. Additionally, he shares a group house, mentors an atypical "yo-girl" named Ebony from Southeast and churns out articles on such erudite subjects as giant vegetables. Through a cyberspace snafu he and Sojourner meet and, after a series of amazing but believable events, end up in Iran covering the Persian Gulf War and learning a lot about life and one another.
Farley combines fresh images, global knowledge and crisp writing with unpredictable action. He tinges an unapologetic black bourgeois sentiment with pride of heritage, stuffing his paragraphs with sharp insight and pointed sarcasm. My only quibble with this book is that there are occasional absurdities that strain the imagination. The list is short: a ludicrous white rapper, an e-mail message that mysteriously shows up on Thurgood's blind date's computer, some thinly disguised landmarks like "Nebraska Fried Chicken" and a few episodes of unsafe sex by a guy sophisticated enough to note he's at least aware of this choice.
Overall, I laughed out loud a lot. When the book was approaching its climax, I braced myself, not wanting to let go of the story or the people. I found contentment only in the hope that Farley's been offered a movie deal. DROWN By Junot Diaz Riverhead. 208 pp. $21.95
JUNOT DIAZ, who received a dazzling six-figure advance for this book of short stories and an incomplete novel, has been hailed by Newsweek as one of the 10 new stars of 1996. Born in the Dominican Republic, Diaz grew up in the black and Latino neighborhoods of central New Jersey, locations that are the backdrop for his stories.
Diaz's literary voice is unique, vibrant and poetic. Several of the stories feature the same characters, and the stories don't end. Instead, they flow into one another like tributaries to a river. The stories in the remarkably gripping first half of the book simply trail off, leaving indelible bruises in the reader's mind.
The disturbing sexual images in "Aurora" are so vivid they prick the skin and then crawl up underneath it. "Ysrael" is the sparely written, masterful story of a boy whose face has been mauled by a pig. He is relentlessly pursued by the narrator and his older brother, who want to see what the face under the mask looks like. In "Fiesta 1980," a family's vulnerabilities are exposed, causing sparks in the soul as surely as faulty electrical wiring. When the father goes to visit his mistress, he takes his young son with him. "The two of them went upstairs and I was too scared of what was happening to poke around. I just sat there, ashamed, expecting something big and fiery to crash down on our heads. I watched a whole hour of the news before Papa came downstairs and said, Let's go."
The last half of the book is not as coherent or energetic as the beginning. But not to worry; the work in the first half is so impressive, you'll hardly notice. GARY IN YOUR POCKET Stories and Notebooks of Gary Fisher Edited by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Duke University Press. 291 pp. $49.95; Paperback, $14.95 cloth
GARY FISHER, a previously unpublished gay black writer, died of AIDS in 1994. He wrote prose and poetry and kept a journal from the time he was 16 until his death at age 32. This book, edited by a professor who befriended him, is a compilation of his writings.
Fisher's stories and poems often seem rambling, hazy and unfinished. Several, however, are hauntingly well-written and quite poignant. Slicing its way through all the work is his unflinching honesty and the relentless pain at the core of his life.
The journal excerpts, easier to follow, are sincere accounts of Fisher's vulnerability as well as his intense and troubled search for his authentic self and true love. This is not a book for the weak of stomach. Throughout his life, Fisher experienced much self-loathing, internal oppression and conflicting feelings about being both black and gay. Most of Fisher's sexual encounters, predominantly with white men, were anonymous, painful, dangerous and often racially degrading.
The reader becomes a helpless voyeur of Fisher's active fantasy life, the dismal sadomasochistic relationships he becomes obsessed with, the dangerous unprotected sex he continues to have, as well as his longings ("I want a relationship that lasts more than 40 minutes") and his despair ("I even dream wrong; my future is not tethered by anything I'm doing now, it's sort of a free-floating tomorrow that I piece together on popular whims and sexual fancy . . . I feel like a man who hasn't slept in weeks."). His last entries are eloquently and excruciatingly descriptive of AIDS and its sometimes debasing treatment.
While admiring the editor's efforts to credit this important writer, I found myself wondering about her choices. Fisher's early entries were far more interesting and revealing than the litany of his sexual exploits. And Sedgwick's discursive afterward is disturbing in its naive justification of Fisher's most self-destructive behavior. She remarks, for example, that "SM play can explicate and therefore manage issues of power, consent, and safety that often remain dangerously obscured in more conventional sexual relations." Huh? CALLE 10 By Danny Romero Mercury House. 157 pp. $12.95
DANNY ROMERO's first novel, set in "Ciudad Jimenez,"' near San Francisco, is the story of a young Chicano man, aptly named Zero, whose only goals in life are getting high, getting paid and getting laid. He apparently attended college for eight years, but we don't find out why, what difference it made or whether he actually graduated. Zero has several "friends" who share similar goals or even more limited ones, if that's possible.
The book's best feature is its gritty, misogynistic and mostly profane dialogue, mainly because it comes off as real. Romero also sprinkles in Spanish terms that are understood in context. Zero's surroundings are as gritty as his dialogue -- full of greasy walls, sleeping bags, fungus and mold, spoiled meat, dirty hands, empty bottles, filled ashtrays, mice, roaches and vomit.
In spite of all this grimness, nobody dies, nobody really suffers, people continue to slur and wobble their way through drunken stupors and heroin nods to the next job or their ex-wives or wherever. There is an allusion to Zero's having attended a 12-step program, but he obviously didn't stick with it. His motto seems to be that he was "born of dirt and would someday return to dirt," so why do anything about it? He opts instead to roll around in the dirt since he's there for good anyway. The reader grows weary and becomes numb to the constant inactivity (other than getting high) and starts to wish all the participants would quickly OD on what they're swallowing, inhaling, snorting and injecting so their misery and the reader's can end. SO GOOD By Venise Berry Dutton. 280 pp. $21.95
ACADEMICIAN Venise Berry's first novel, subtitled "An African American Love Story," follows three black women, blood sisters Lisa and Danielle and their sistagirlfriend, Sundiata, in their romantic pursuits. The book, set in Washington, D.C., opens with Sundiata's wedding to a Nigerian man. Lisa is jealous because she recently broke up with the man she thought she would be married to by then and has no replacement prospects. Danielle, the "maid" of honor, is married to a man her sister thinks is perfect and with whom she has a young daughter. Unfortunately, Danielle is not satisfied and tries to get her groove back with a younger colleague in her advertising agency.
Although all three women are educated and self-sufficient (Lisa is pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy, Sundiata has her own basket-making business) and although they spout phrases like "Nothing can make you happy but yourself," they still insist upon trying to define happiness in terms of their relationships with men. At Sundiata's wedding, Lisa meets a man who provides her with plenty of challenges; throughout the book, Sundiata's marriage experiences several cross-cultural eruptions and Danielle gives a whole new meaning to mid-life crisis.
Berry jumps seamlessly in and out of the heads of all the characters, including the men, and there are a couple of surprises. Often, however, we're told information rather than shown it, and the metaphors are silly. Because the characters lack depth, it's hard to care what happens to them. But this book, peppered with pop-culture references (BET, Rolanda and Montel Williams) and local D.C. spots (including a reference to Columbia Avenue instead of Columbia Road), doesn't profess depth. It's like light, fluffy popcorn -- easy and quick to digest but soon forgotten. Patricia Elam Ruff is a Washington writer and commentator.