OBSCENE BODIES By Kim Benabib HarperCollins. 245 pp. $22 KIM BENABIB'S first novel takes about 50 pages to evolve from a dry grind into a slick satire of the SoHo art scene. Joining a recent crop of SoHo-oriented novels by young writers (Kathe Koja's Kink, David Lipsky's The Art Fair), Obscene Bodies initially annoys with its relentless cataloguing of New York qualities. Too often, Benabib uses "New York" as an adjective: "a New York autumn," "people who were New York famous." Despite this lack of subtlety -- and a distracting flashback narration -- the novel rises above the jaded universe it inhabits. Narrator Stuart Finley, an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a traditionalist in his views on art and a moralist in life. After 28-year-old Stuart meets Claire Labrouste, a beautiful young SoHoite who works for the contemporary art department at Sotheby's auction house, the careful structure of his life begins to break down. A death that straddles the line between accident and homicide is only one of the ambiguous and disturbing phenomena Stuart encounters. Initially disdainful of Claire's ex-lover, the artist-of-the-moment Miles Levy, Stuart eventually learns from him "the genius" of compromising wisely. By the end of the novel, many of Stuart's relationships and values -- including the mettle of his mentor and the merit of his life's work -- are called into question. Sharp, ironic observations -- the effect of the New York real estate market on the psyche, the machinations that pass for selling art in SoHo -- energize this novel. Its title alludes both to the art itself and to the grotesque excesses in the art world. The ending brings at least one too many shocking revelations, but the book's funny, accurate moments provide enough relief. FIGHT CLUB By Chuck Palahniuk Norton. 208 pp. $21 A VOLATILE, brilliantly creepy satirefilled with esoteric tips for causing destruction, Fight Club marks Chuck Palahniuk's debut as a novelist. Ever wonder how to pollute a plumbing system with red dye, or inject an ATM machine with axle grease or vanilla pudding? Along with instructions for executing such quirky acts of urban terrorism, Fight Club offers diabolically sharp and funny writing. The novel's unnamed 30-year-old narrator is a chronic insomniac who lives in an unnamed city, works as a "recall campaign coordinator" for an auto maker and suffers from a pervasive sense of anomie. To raise his spirits and help him sleep, he attends support groups for the seriously ill. At a testicular-cancer meeting, he meets Marla Singer, a "faker" like himself who is "lost inside." In Marla's presence, the narrator loses his ability to "hit bottom" and "be saved," so he seeks out a new release. He finds "service industry terrorist" Tyler Durden, who splices sex-organ scenes into G-rated films and commits atrocities against food in an upscale hotel. Upping the ante, the narrator and Tyler form a club where young men beat each other into comas. Fueled by a nihilistic fervor and financed by a soap-making operation that uses fat culled from liposuction, the Fight Club grows into an anarchic cult set on destroying society through terrorist acts. Palahniuk's staccato sentences and one-sentence paragraphs convey a sense of instability; his constant repetition -- "nothing is static," "everything is falling apart" -- achieves a sectlike brainwashing effect. By the time the narrator begins to grasp the true depth of Tyler's perversity, it is too late to save himself. But eventually, through an act of self-effacement, he finds, if not peace, at least a refuge. DOG EAT DOG By Edward Bunker St. Martin's Press. 240 pp. $22.95 THOUGH EDWARD BUNKER'S fourth novel is laced with strong detail, its mundane writing mainly serves as a means to advance the action. Careless errors -- narrative inconsistencies, recycled phrases, misplaced modifiers -- abound. Still, because Bunker's storytelling is topnotch here, as always, he pulls off a riveting tale of three ex-convicts who band together to steal money from "pimps, drug dealers, and gangsters." The author, who spent almost 30 years incarcerated for crimes that range from forgery to bank robbery, begins the novel in a reform school where his three central characters meet as troubled teenagers. Twenty years later, all three have served time in various California prisons. "Diesel" Carbon and "Mad Dog" McCain -- whose earliest memory is of his mother trying to drown him in the bathtub -- await the release of their leader, Troy Cameron, from San Quentin. After Troy gets out, the partners execute his plan to steal from other criminals; the beauty of this is the slim chance of their victims reporting the theft. Their first heist -- in which they rip off a young black drug lord -- goes off without a hitch. But another plan, to kidnap the one-year-old son of a drug smuggler, is beset with complications after the smuggler shows up at his house unexpectedly while the crime is in progress. A further snag is Troy and Diesel's discovery that their third partner has committed horrific acts; in short, they realize "Mad Dog was a mad dog." In Troy and Diesel's particular moral code, certain types of crime are justified while others are anathema. But ultimately, the violence they set in motion spirals out of control, and no code can contain it. Bunker successfully depicts the compassionate side of his characters, giving the literate Troy a soft spot for women, children and dogs. The author also presents a persuasive argument for how harsh prison conditions create "maniacs," and the "three-strikes law" makes ex-convicts desperate enough to kill rather than face life behind bars. INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN By Kevin Canty Doubleday. 244 pp. $21.95 KEVIN CANTY'S spare prose conveys the intensity of adolescence while offsetting the melodrama inherent in his subject. His stark imagery and restrained tone save his first novel from slipping into sentimentality. At 17, with a mentally ill mother and an alcoholic father, Kenny Kolodny has an unusually heavy usual load of adolescent angst. He envies his younger brother, Ray, who has escaped to live with a friend's family in Australia. When Kenny meets Junie Williamson, rumored to be "the class lesbian," he is drawn to her vulnerability. She becomes his escape, "the one good thing." She also turns out to be "damaged," with dark secrets of her own. Their relationship heightens Kenny's fear that his dysfunctional background has imperiled his future: Junie's comparatively cushy existence makes him more aware of the "little magnetic field of trouble" that surrounds him. Eventually, a predictable complication leads to the young couple's estrangement. The story unfolds through the lens of an older, more seasoned Kenny, after a visit to his childhood town unleashes a flood of memories. Canty works too hard at creating a melancholy mood. He uses the adjective "gray" repeatedly, to describe everything from a sky to a face to a feeling. Although Kenny is a fully developed, palpable character, Junie is mainly a receptacle for his emotions. She comes across as defensive and disturbed, so Kenny's undying affection for her is never quite convincing. Still, Canty evokes the pain and thwarted promise of past love. I'M LOSING YOU By Bruce Wagner Villard. 319 pp. $23 A merciless skewering of Hollywood, I'm Losing You is more a series of disjointed sketches than it is a novel. Though film writer Bruce Wagner (also author of the novel Force Majeure) captures all of Tinseltown's treachery, a coherent framework for his satire escapes him. Wagner's narrative bounces from character to character, without fleshing out any of them; he produces types but not people. Cameo appearances by real stars and reflexive cinematic references increase this sense of superficiality. Chunks of the novel consist of journal entries and e-mail and cellular phone conversations (the title comes from a phrase often used during the latter), a device that lends itself to outre humor but also to one-dimensional storytelling. The novel charts the ups and downs of an interconnected group of agents, directors, producers, managers, writers and underlings with higher aspirations as they scheme, cavort, join cults, sedate themselves, get psychoanalyzed and, inevitably, have breakdowns. The most striking degeneration is that of Oberon Mall, a "Big Star" who is left paralyzed by a root canal gone bad and becomes a symbol of what stardom can't buy. In this world, personal tragedy (a blind baby, a dead son) is the best material, and success the best therapy. Those whom success eludes commit suicide or accuse others of stealing their ideas. Filled with raunchy details, many kinds of deviance and some passages so imaginative they verge on hallucinatory, I'm Losing You is undeniably entertaining. But its loose ends and insular obsessions may turn off those not vested in the Hollywood dream. Karen Angel is a contributing editor of Publishers Weekly.