Sunday, November 09, 2003

November 4, 2003
How's That New Best Seller? Well, the Author's Famous

Two weeks from tomorrow at a black-tie gala, the National Book Foundation will bestow on Stephen King a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In that setting Mr. King's latest novel should make an interesting conversation piece. "Wolves of the Calla" is the rollicking 714-page fifth installment of a projected seven-volume "Dark Tower" fantasy series, illustrated with images not normally associated with distinguished contributions to letters. For instance there's the naked woman in the forest biting the head off a frog.

Apoplexy time? Hardly. Mr. King deserves his due. It takes a certain skill to write books (in his case more than 40) so much in demand that no American airport — or library — is complete without one. Writers this popular are such cultural fixtures that they practically create their own weather.

Why determine the season via autumn leaves or diminishing daylight? When the best-seller list is as packed with brand names as it is now, it becomes its own kind of calendar. At the moment we're two weeks shy of James Patterson, and here comes Jackie Collins, too. "Leaving her readers to guess which real celebrities she has used as models for her fabulous characters," its jacket copy says, her "Hollywood Divorces" will soon bring an ambitious "sexy Latina superstar" who is called Lola Sanchez. Note the clever use of "Lo" in this roman-à-Collins name.

Right now Nora Roberts ("Birthright") has peaked, but John Grisham is everywhere. (Both "Bleachers" and a reissue of "Skipping Christmas" are out, with a new legal thriller due in February.) And Anne Rice has brought her bloodsucking meal ticket, the Vampire Lestat, back for yet another encore in "Blood Canticle."

The current crop of heavy-hitting best sellers divides into distinct categories. Like Jumbo: "Wolves of the Calla" and Neal Stephenson's 927-page "Quicksilver" (the first of three volumes), require major investments of time, energy and interest. For the reader who stumbles over Mr. Stephenson's showy prose (on board a ferry, "the sky's a matted reticule of taut jute and spokeshaved tree-trunks"), rest assured that "Quicksilver" is also larded with lessons in science and history.

More wit would have been welcome, and his long-winded storytelling skills seldom measure up to his erudition. But this is the place to confirm that Lima, Manila, Goa, Bandar Abbas, Mocha, Cairo, Smyrna, Malta, Madrid and the Canary Islands were all using Spanish coinage in 1713.

Other popular books fall into a Mini category, to the point where their size is a selling point. Sure, Mitch Albom's "Five People You Meet in Heaven" could have been about 23 people you meet in heaven instead. But Mr. Albom, the author of "Tuesdays With Morrie" — who may have an even bigger hit with this new book, since it taps into the baby boom generation's fear of death — chooses to keep this book short, sweet and colorful. You may not even want to wait for the movie version to discover that one of the five people is blue.

Short books — or those, like Mr. Patterson's, with chapters that can be finished in the time it takes to watch a few television commercials — are meant to be read easily. They ought to be less easy to write. But Ellen DeGeneres, whose "Funny Thing Is . . ." is liable to capitalize on the good will prompted by her new daytime talk show, is only on Page 2 when she resorts to talk of dental flossing. By Page 3: "I enjoy the smell of a freshly washed monkey."

This is not to say that Ms. DeGeneres isn't entertaining (on Eminem, supposedly her regular brunch guest: "I call him `Em.' I even call him `Auntie Em,' like from `The Wizard of Oz,' and he laughs — sometimes.") It's just that her position as a comedy all-star goes only so far. Steve Martin, whose second best-selling short novel ("The Pleasure of My Company") is much less captivating than his first ("Shopgirl"), this time also writes lines that aren't complete without the sound of his vocal delivery.

Two other breeds of best seller dish dirt and sling mud, respectively. A gossipy book in the first genre is almost certain to be popular, provided it trades on movie stars or Kennedy cachet. Even the sleaziest of these ("The Kennedy Curse" by Edward Klein recently showed the curse meant being vandalized by biographers) may just sell. Now it's open season on Caroline Kennedy with "Sweet Caroline: Last Child of Camelot." The author is Christopher Anderson, who counts "The Day John Died" and "The Day Diana Died" among his accomplishments.

Presumptuous as he is (does this author really have any business referring to Senator Edward M. Kennedy as "Uncle Teddy?"), Mr. Anderson has a way with the buzzwords of sob-sister hagiography. "They were impossibly attractive, outlandishly wealthy, elegant, witty, headstrong, exciting," he writes of Ms. Kennedy's parents. As for the children, they are "the freckle-faced girl sitting confidently astride her pony, Macaroni" and her brother John, "the tousle-haired scamp."

But this is a livelier crime against Camelot than "The Georgetown Ladies' Social Club" by C. David Heymann, who is brazen without verve. Nose pressed to the glass, he often seems to be describing parties to which he would never have been invited. In any case, the reader who joins in invading Ms. Kennedy's privacy with Mr. Anderson can have a certain solace. At least you're not buying a book by the big-mouthed butler to Diana, Princess of Wales.

Seldom have bare-knuckled political diatribes enjoyed the kind of list-topping popularity they share at the moment. At this rate Bill O'Reilly, Laura Ingraham or David Limbaugh (pick one) may still be trading sweet nothings with Michael Moore, Al Franken, Molly Ivins or Lou Dubose (pick one) on Valentine's Day.

Mr. O'Reilly emerged as the noisiest of the bunch (no mean feat) on the strength of sheer vehemence and the occasional unpredictable touch. His "Who's Looking Out for You?" can both quote Neil Young ("Keep on rockin' in the free world") and blast: "Problems will hunt you down, slap you around, and leave you disillusioned and sometimes broke. That is, unless you meet them at the door and knee them in the groin."

The presidency looms large in these books, but it's also a hot topic in fiction. For Richard North Patterson, whose "Balance of Power" is the heftiest of current imaginings from the Oval Office, President Kerry Kilcannon is a plausible crusader again the gun lobby. David Baldacci's flimsier "Split Second," like his "Absolute Power," leads from the shooting of a presidential candidate into a Secret Service-related story. Then there's Stuart Woods, the writer likeliest to include a nice bed-and-breakfast, single malt Scotch and a pretty, flirtatious proprietor in a thriller about the First Family.

Mr. Woods may like things cushy, but he is the antithesis of Patricia Cornwell, whose "Blow Fly" trades on a taste for the stomach-turning. Ms. Cornwell provides a dead maggot in her book's first sentence, then a letter-writing prisoner of the Hannibal Lecter school ("Oh, the longing, the longing, the anxiety he cannot relieve because he cannot relive, relive, relive their ecstasy as they died") and much more in a similar vein.

If this is mainstream, where are the simple best-seller basics? (Good yarn, good characters, good time.) For now at least, they're in the South. Both James Lee Burke's "Last Car to Elysian Fields" and Stephen Hunter's "Havana" feature dynamic plotting. (Mr. Hunter opens with a gangster shooting a horse in Times Square.) And they present the authors' familiar, likable leading men, heroes who hail from New Orleans (Mr. Burke's Dave Robicheaux) and Arkansas (Mr. Hunter's Earl Swagger, who winds up in Cuba).

In these energetic, atmospheric Southern-based, thrillers, three ingredients are indispensable. The hero must be a brooding onetime alcoholic. He must have pain in his past. And there must be a Cadillac somewhere in the story. Put them all together, and you've got yourself a hit.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
Books of The Times: How’s That New Best Seller? Well, the Author’s Famous

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