HATCHET JOBS

Writings on Contemporary Fiction

By Dale Peck. New Press. 228 pp. $23.95

THE IRRESPONSIBLE SELF

On Laughter and the Novel

By James Wood. Farrar Straus Giroux. 302 pp. $24 I am not sure that it means much to serious readers, but publishers prefer books of diverse parts -- collections of stories, poems, essays and critical pieces -- to be yoked together by more than the voice of an author. Thus both James Wood and Dale Peck present their gatherings of lively and adventurous critical essays as variations on themes, with varying degrees of success. Wood's subtitle, "On Laughter and the Novel," tells us that his overall subject is comedy in the novel, though in fact four of the book's 22 essays, dealing with the art of Isaac Babel, Giovanni Verga, J.F. Powers and V.S. Pritchett, are concerned with the short story, and Chekhov's stories are referenced throughout, establishing the key for most of the pieces in the book.

In his introduction Wood makes a distinction between the satirical rigor of "the comedy of correction," which he dates from Aristotle's Poetics, and "the comedy of forgiveness," which, he argues, though rooted in Shakespeare, is "the creation of modern fiction." Wood also introduces some subjects for exploration, including the ways and means of characterization, the use and abuse of reliable and unreliable narrators and the Dickensian ambitions of some recent novelists, which he labels as "hysterical realism." With these and other critical elements, Wood earns the freedom to write with pleasure what he calls "largely a book of essays in appreciation" -- of a variety of writers who have interested him, from Shakespeare and Coleridge and Dostoyevsky to Saul Bellow and Salman Rushdie and Monica Ali.

In contrast, starting with the title and the jokey cover photograph (the author with ax in hand), Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs is a series of 12 exemplary variations on the literary critic as hit man. The reader can share the fun and games, witnessing the rare bravado of a critic who is uniformly interesting and evidently fearless -- he takes on semi-sacred cows like Sven Birkerts and David Foster Wallace, Stanley Crouch and Julian Barnes. (Better him than us.) He is unbowed before the power and the glory of established reputations. Thus the sentence that two years ago made Peck famous in certain literary circles: "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." Or this, a one-line summary judgment of the art of Ian McEwan: "The man's books smell worse than newspaper wrapped around old fish." Peck comes on strong, less like a genteel gatekeeper than a berserk middle linebacker, knocking highly regarded heads together. But his chief concern, after gaining attention with a solid smack upside the head, is making a thoughtful and appreciative case for better fiction than we have been getting from our official crew of best and brightest contemporaries. On Moody, for example, Peck's contempt is at least modified: "I went into this review thinking Moody was a faker, a poser. Shooting him off his plinth, I thought, would be easier than shooting fish in a barrel. But whatever else he is, he's the genuine article . . . a real writer."

The writers of both these books are novelists, and the writing is alive, crackling and sparkling with electric energy. Wood, a senior editor at the New Republic and an Englishman, works within the graceful boundaries of the well-turned, well-schooled sentence, as here (out of context, of course) in his superb piece "Henry Green's England": "Just as art often forces characters into unnatural presentation, so it forces itself into shapely presentations of one kind or another -- and these artificialities, too, Green sought to annul, by creating an art of disheveled purpose." Allusive and aphoristic, Peck's style is classic American, a jivey mix of rhetoric and spontaneity: "When I think a book has let me down I get angry with it, and when I think that book has deceived me I get pissed off." "Think Ray Carver, Lorrie Moore, the Brat Pack -- and how awful does most of that shit seem now?" Peck is a master of the surprising simile, as in: "Birkerts trots out all his allusions and factlets and trivia, regardless of accuracy, relevance, or extraneousness, with the tinkling insistence of a five-year-old learning to play 'Chopsticks.' With each rendition he bangs harder and louder, as if to conceal the fact that he doesn't know how to play anything else." Or on the subject of Julian Barnes: "This is relatively harmless drivel, but it doesn't explain why Barnes' writing crawls under your skin and itches like scabies." Even readers turned off by this kind of thing will have to admit that it is refreshing to read critical prose that is close to jargon-free.

Allowing for superficial differences, these two books seem to be working the territory together, Wood covering (mostly) the near past of the modern novel, Peck playing defense against his flashy contemporaries. Each maintains high and demanding standards, and each has written some wonderful pieces when everything comes together and the occasion is mainly to praise. Wood is breathtaking in, for example, "Isaac Babel and the Dangers of Exaggeration," "Joseph Roth's Empire of Signs" and one that involves the pleasure, for me, of discovering a new author -- "Monica Ali's Novelties." Just so, Dale Peck's "Give Me Shelter: In Praise of Rebecca Brown," "Kurt's Conundrum" and "Stop Thinking: The (D)evolution of Gay Literature" are worth the price of the book.

We live at a time when a lot of literary criticism is no more than expanded blurbs. Who cares? These two, Wood and Peck, do. They care about the life and death of the novel. None of us knows enough to pass more than the most tentative critical judgments, but I judge there is a lot we can learn, and with plenty of accompanying pleasure, from this dynamic duo. *

George Garrett is the author, most recently, of "Southern Excursions: Views of Southern Literature in My Time."