Peru, the country that gave us the fierce verse of Cesar Vallejo, the stylish prose of Ricardo Palma and the intricate novels of Mario Vargas Llosa, now gives us Daniel Alarcon, whose fierce, stylish and intricate stories in War By Candlelight (HarperCollins, $23.95) announce a prodigious talent.

He is all of 27 years old.

Born in Lima but raised from infancy in Birmingham, Ala., Alarcon studied English at Columbia University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Four years ago, he was granted a Fulbright scholarship and returned to Peru to live in one of Lima's heartbreakingly poor shantytowns, San Juan de Lurigancho -- an experience that informs every page of this book.

Alarcon writes in English, so there is nothing veiled here, no sense that narrative and nuance lie buried under the sediment of another culture. His tales, set largely in the hardscrabble world of Lima, build with all the power of a Flannery O'Connor story: a gentle enough start, an innocent setting, and before long the reader is adrift in a drama that defies the imagination -- with characters that live long after the book is closed.

The star here is "City of Clowns," a story that was published in the New Yorker two years ago. In it, a young newspaper reporter from the barriadas feels betrayed by his dead father's profligacies and his mother's too easy forgiveness of them; he finds himself wandering the ravaged capital of the conquistadors, sinking into a kind of madness, fascinated by its eccentric little population of beggar-clowns. There is something elemental in this, and, as Alarcon tells it, devastating: A beautiful, disgraced city can make madmen of us all.

-- Marie Arana