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in brief: fiction

‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club,’ ‘The Last Kind Words Saloon,’ ‘The Vacationers,’ ‘Funny One,’ ‘Young God’

LOVERS AT THE CHAMELEON CLUB, PARIS 1932

By Francine Prose

Harper, 448 pp., $26.99

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Francine Prose’s sprawling novel, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932,” takes its inspiration from a photograph by the Hungarian expatriate Brassaï. In “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932,” Violette Morris, a chunky woman in suit and tie, poses at a bar with her languorous, lipsticked girlfriend. A thwarted professional athlete, Morris later sided with the Nazis during the occupation of France; she died at the hands of the Resistance.

Prose’s photographer is a young Hungarian named Gabor Tsenyi, her athlete a woman named Lou Villars, and the nightspot the Chameleon Club, whose gender-fluid, between-the-wars milieu echoes the Kit Kat Klub of “Cabaret.” As war closes in, various females in Gabor’s orbit find their focus, and the novel becomes a story about women of action and risk. But it’s also about the seeds of evil, and how insidiously they germinate.

THE LAST KIND WORDS SALOON

By Larry McMurtry

Liveright, 224 pp., $24.95

Larry McMurtry’s “The Last Kind Words Saloon” is a leisurely yarn, a little short on detail. But this story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and other ruffians drawn to the American frontier is also such a comfortable Western that Sam Elliot might as well be narrating it directly into your ear.

McMurtry intersperses comedy and romance — of the heart and of the West — with horrific violence bred of boredom and petulance, greed and fear. And once again, he’s written some smart, tough women and a bunch of men who have no idea what to make of them.

THE VACATIONERS

By Emma Straub

Riverhead, 304 pp., $26.95

Jim, who really should not have had that affair with the editorial assistant barely older than his daughter, has just been forced out of his glamorous job as the editor of a glossy men’s magazine. Franny, his writer wife of more than three decades, is contemplating whether to leave him. What a perfect time for a family getaway to Mallorca!

Emma Straub’s psychologically astute comic novel, gathers the clan there in a rented dream house: Jim and Franny; their daughter, Sylvia, determined to lose her virginity before she goes off to Brown; her older brother, Bobby, jerkish and lost. Franny’s best friend, Charles, and his husband serve as buffers.

Picturesque and filled with the solvable problems of the privileged, this is the kind of novel Franny or Sylvia might take on a trip to read poolside. It’s good company.

FUNNY ONCE: Stories

By Antonya Nelson

Bloomsbury, 304 pp., $26

“You know,” the woman says, “you ought to have to renew your license to live. Some people are no longer qualified. Some people wouldn’t pass the test.”

Commitment to living is a tenuous thing in “Funny Once,” Antonya Nelson’s collection of nine beautifully observed short stories and a novella. Suicide is a recurring theme; a small dog is named Sylvia Plath.

Nelson’s characters are a restless lot, their commitments to each other conditional. Marriage is a serial condition, boredom a suitable excuse for moving on.

But they’re aspirational in their way. Drunk one evening, the mother of a faraway married son wishes he’d get his old girlfriend pregnant so she could have a grandchild. “She wanted another chance at loving somebody.” For that, a person might stick around.

YOUNG GOD

By Katherine Faw Morris

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

208 pp., $24

In the opening moments of “Young God,” Katherine Faw Morris’s bleak and extraordinarily assured debut, 13-year-old Nikki is having what might have been a day of reasonably normal fun at the local swimming hole. Clad in her young mother’s old bikini, she flexes her sexual power, her jutting hips “sharp like weapons.”

But within a few pages, her mother is dead. Nikki’s precarious existence in her rural North Carolina town — the kind of place where fun on a Saturday night means cruising the Walmart parking lot — speedily descends into a squalid tableau of casual brutality, drugs, and more drugs as she tries to win the love of her pimping ex-con father.

Who’s looking out for Nikki? No one but herself. So she follows her elders’ example.

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