LIFTED BY THE GREAT NOTHING
By Karim Dimechkie. (Bloomsbury, 293 pages, $26.)
Karim Dimechkie's debut novel is funny, poignant and heartbreaking, a true-to-life coming-of-age novel about a young Lebanese boy who lives with his father in a small town in New Jersey. The father, Rasheem, is a wonderful character, exuberant and loving and endlessly, clumsily well-meaning. For instance: He builds Max a treehouse, thinking that a very American thing to do, and it ends up an oppressive space, an airless coffin that Max secretly loathes.
Rasheem works two and sometimes three jobs, terrible jobs in warehouses and busing tables in diners, in order to give his son every indulgence. Max's mother, Rasheem tells him, died in Beirut when robbers overran their apartment and slaughtered most of the family. The story turns when Max finds out that this is not true.
Dimechkie is a splendid storyteller, lacing his prose with apt and unexpected analogies and metaphors. ("Her breath smelled of a mixture of white wine, rot, and babies' heads.")
The book stumbles a bit in the final third, when Max heads off to Beirut without telling a soul to try to find his mother. While the descriptions of Beirut are tactile and vivid ("The sun opened its eye and shot a beam across Beirut"), the story line grows implausible. But this does not ruin the book. Dimechkie's genius may not lie in plotting, but in creating empathetic details, and when it comes to Max's feelings — his antipathy toward his father, his lust for the comely neighbor, his fears, his passions, his missteps, his interior life — well, Dimechkie got everything right.
By William Hjortsberg. (Open Road, 228 pages, $14.)
This novel could launch a new literary genre: hippie thriller. The 1967 Summer of Love is over. Young stoner writer Tod and his wife, Linda, flee the wilted flower power of San Francisco, driving to Mexico in a Volkswagen minibus. Living in cheap lodging, everything seems cool, thanks partly to tequila and marijuana. Then Tod wakes up from a drug binge and finds a dead hooker in bed.
Linda also is missing, perhaps kidnapped by the addict criminals who stayed next door but who have suddenly disappeared. Taking on a new calling, Tod becomes a wife searcher and avenger who goes stoned and armed on the trail of murderous ex-cons. From this 1960s counterculture cocktail, Hjortsberg churns a tale of bizarre thrills and surprises.