Fictions Old and New

Critics who read the war on terrorism into Steven Spielberg's new version of "War of the Worlds," based on the story by H.G. Wells, might find even more topicality in another Wells sf novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau (Penguin Classics, $9). The island in question has been taken over by a brilliant but crazed surgeon, whose specialty is to conjoin parts of humans and animals to produce bizarre amalgams, such as a servant with "pointed ears, covered with a fine fur" -- and he is one of the island's more presentable creatures. Viewed from today's perspective, the book touches upon issues of cloning, the use of animals in laboratory experiments, perhaps even stem-cell research. The protagonist, a decent Englishman who has been shipwrecked on the island, asks Moreau why he uses humans for his experiments rather than sticking to animals. Moreau gives this chilling reply: "I might just as well have worked to form sheep into llamas, and llamas into sheep. I suppose there is something in the human form that appeals to the artistic turn of mind more powerfully than any animal shape can."

The rap on Henry Roth is that in later life he let his communist affiliation get the better of him, writing a good deal of tendentious fiction. Perhaps so, but before ideology possessed him he wrote a largely apolitical masterpiece, Call It Sleep (Picador, $15), originally published in 1934. In an introduction reprinted with this edition, Alfred Kazin called the book "the most profound novel of Jewish life that I have ever read by an American." It's the story of David Schearl, a boy growing up in New York City's slums. David regularly disappoints his father, who says he "has a downright gift for stumbling into every black moment of the year," only to be buoyed up by his mother, who tends to defend him no matter what. In an afterword, Hana Wirth-Nesher explicates Roth's bilingualism -- the way in which he mingles English, both proper and slangy, with Yiddish. The results can be redolent of the special language that the cartoonist George Herriman created for his strip "Krazy Kat," as when a poker player in Call It Sleep remarks, "T'ree Kings I god. Dey came on huzzbeck!"

Edgar Lee Masters made a bold claim for his novel in verse, Spoon River Anthology (Hesperus, $15.95; forthcoming in September): that two other story-telling poets, Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost, "were winnowing their gills for water high and dry on the sand bank until the Spoon River flood refreshed them with oxygen and enabled them to swim back into the stream." Robinson and Frost's revenge was to enter the pantheon, while Masters is remembered, if at all, as a one-book man. The idea here is that those buried in the town cemetery will tell their life stories in a few well-framed lines, but too often they sound like characters out of a morality play. There is, for example, the Circuit Judge who invariably ruled against the poor and in favor of the rich, with his post-mortem regret that "even Hod Putt, the murderer,/ Hanged by my sentence,/ Was innocent in soul compared with me." Nonetheless, as John Ridland notes in his introduction, the Anthology has inspired many a later writer with an animus against his home town.

Being a painter seems to confer a free bohemian pass, a license to drink too much, rut however you please and generally be selfish and heedless. So, at any rate, assumes Jack Rathbone, the spoiled artist at the center of Patrick McGrath's novel Port Mungo (Vintage, $13). McGrath's earlier novels typically featured characters with outre medical conditions, but Rathbone is physically sound. It's his soul that's ailing, especially since Vera, the woman he marries, has a sharp enough critical eye to know when he is doing second-rate work (which is most of the time) and the brass to say so. McGrath tells this story of wrecked lives with stylish panache, as in this apercu about one of Jack and Vera's daughters: "Youth is profoundly obsessed with its own dilemma, which crudely put is the problem of going forward with the appearance of sure-footed confidence into what looks like a morass of uncertainty and risk."

-- Dennis Drabelle