All the Beautiful Girls
By Elizabeth J. Church. (Ballantine, 325 pages, $27.)
Elizabeth J. Church puts her pretty young heroine through some truly ugly ordeals in the eventful "All the Beautiful Girls," set in small-town Kansas and glittering Las Vegas in the 1960s.
Lily Decker is just 8 years old when she miraculously survives a gruesome car accident that kills her parents and older sister. She's taken in by her mother's sister, the pious Tate, and Tate's husband, the coarse Miles, who molests Lily. The Air Force test pilot who was driving the other car in the crash sends Lily books and gives her money for dance classes, her only respite besides cutting herself.
She grows up gorgeous and moves to Las Vegas on the ill-informed advice of her dance teacher, even though the pilot offers to pay for college and she has an IQ of 155. Changing her name to Ruby Wilde, she finds that although her dance skills aren't up to snuff for a troupe, she's "perfect showgirl material" (sexy, long-legged and busty).
Ruby finds "Excitement and Glamour!" as she meets celebrities, hangs out with her friends and entertains high-rollers, who shower her with lavish gifts. But soon growing tired of "Vegas plastic," she decides to study costume design. Then she falls hard for Javier, a would-be photographer and refugee from Franco's Spain, whose dialogue is rendered phonetically ("Dis is no for us") and who may as well be wearing a flashing neon sign that says "Trouble." Misfortune follows, and Ruby's resilience is tested yet again.
Former attorney Church, author of "The Atomic Weight of Love," paints a pleasurably vivid picture of the old Sin City, with its casinos and glitz. But she also strains credulity as star cameos, casual references to historical events and plot points pile up. Ultimately, she sends her heroine on a journey of healing, which after all the misery is a relief, like rain in the desert.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories By Denis Johnson. (Random House, 224 pages, $27.)
The saddest word in Johnson's new collection is the "was" in the author biography at the end ("Denis Johnson was a writer who …"). Johnson, whose books include "Train Dreams" and the National Book Award-winning "Tree of Smoke," died last year of liver cancer and he confronts death in each of these five stories. That's most achingly true of "Triumph Over the Grave," which has a writer as its main character and which ends with this devastating passage: "It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it."
Of Johnson's previous books, "Largesse" is most similar to "Jesus' Son," with which it shares some minor characters, in the way it reveals the everyday humanity in bizarre situations: a poet whose obsession with Elvis leads him to grave-robbing in "Doppelganger, Poltergeist." A drug addict whose steely desperation gradually surfaces via a series of atonement letters in the epistolary "The Starlight on Idaho." A prison newbie who uncovers the heart of an acquaintance known as "Strangler Bob."
My favorite of the five stories — two of which are novella-length, if you want to split hairs — is the title story. Its narrator is a copywriter who strings together a series of brief-but-vivid vignettes from his unhappy life (a sketch of a dinner party at which everyone tries to name their favorite moment of silence, for instance). Taken together, these vignettes reveal him so fully that when we get to the end, and he mentions that an ex-wife has just called him to say she's dying, it seems perfectly in keeping with his character that he can't figure out which of his ex-wives it was.
The author of these five remarkable tales may be dead, but his work will remain with us for a very long time.