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Book Reviews

‘The Devil I Know,’ ‘Still Life,’ ‘The Wherewithal,’ and more

THE DEVIL I KNOW

By Claire Kilroy

Grove, 272 pp., paperback, $16

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An airline passenger, one year sober, orders an in-flight cup of tea. Within moments, the oxygen masks drop. The plane nose-dives. “This is it, I thought. To hell with it,” and Tristram St. Lawrence lunges after the beverage trolley. If he’s about to die, he wants a drink now.

So he recalls in the opening pages of Claire Kilroy’s clever black satire, “The Devil I Know.”

When the plane makes an emergency landing in Dublin, where Tristram grew up, he wants to leave to avoid temptation. The 12-step sponsor who saved his life in Belgium suggests he stay.

It’s 2006, and the Celtic Tiger makes every deranged financial bet look like a sure thing. Soon Tristram is working for his sponsor on vast real estate deals. But when everything falls to bits, he discovers he’s on his own. Rehab is really going to cost him.

And yes, it is a metaphor.

STILL LIFE WITH BREAD CRUMBS

By Anna Quindlen

Random House, 272 pp., $26

A fine-art photographer whose famous years are behind her faces the sort of dilemma confronted only by the very privileged in Anna Quindlen’s “Still Life With Bread Crumbs.”

Rebecca Winter’s sandwich-generation expenses have so outstripped her dwindling income that she may have to sell her capacious Manhattan home unless she rents it out for a year while she lives somewhere cheaper, in the woods upstate.

Her interactions with the small-town locals are tinged with cringe-inducing class condescension, but stick with her. At 60, she is slowly inventing the next version of herself.

Her trouble brings to mind the New Yorker cartoon about a caped superhero stranded on a desert island. “Oh my God — I just remembered I can fly,” he says. Rescuing will not be required.

THE WHEREWITHAL: A Novel in Verse

By Philip Schultz

Norton, 192 pp., $25.95

In “The Wherewithal,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz, human society’s ugliest behavior is among its most resilient.

Avoiding the draft in 1968 San Francisco, a young man is translating the diaries of his mother. In World War II Poland, she hid Jewish townspeople from the Christian neighbors who would have killed them, “everyone pretending only / the Germans did such things.”

A meditation on language, memory, and culpability, “The Wherewithal” has guest appearances by Wittgenstein and the Zodiac killer.

“Your soul,” Schultz writes, “have you checked the wiring lately?”

THE THOUGHTS AND HAPPENINGS OF WILFRED PRICE, PURVEYOR OF SUPERIOR FUNERALS

By Wendy Jones

Europa Editions, 272 pp., paperback, $17

In 1924 in Narberth, Wales, population 300, undertaker Wilfred Price is something of a catch: young, handsome, and devoted to his widowed da, the town gravedigger. As Wilfred preps their bodies for burial, he chats companionably with the deceased.

Less smooth with live women, he blurts an inadvertent marriage proposal to pretty Grace, tries to undo it, then falls for lovely Flora when her father dies.

Wendy Jones’s life-embracing novel, “THE THOUGHTS AND HAPPENINGS OF WILFRED PRICE, PURVEYOR OF SUPERIOR FUNERALS,’’ sometimes skates too close to twee, but it’s also more serious than it appears. Vital information goes unspoken, and at a terrible cost.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.
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