- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

When Jack Tagger, journalist/hero in Carl Hiaasen's latest novel Basket Case (Knopf, $25.95, 317 pages) says, "This is my fifth newspaper job and surely the last. I am increasingly unfit for the trade," you may take him at his word. Middle-aged and at loose ends in his personal life, Tagger is that standard-issue, whiny, self-involved (he harbors an unsubstantiated belief that he'll die soon), victim-protagonist who inhabits much of weaker American fiction.
Once at the top of his profession, in his view, Tagger has been reduced to writing obituaries after mouthing off about journalistic integrity to the profit-hungry polo-playing publisher of the small-town Florida rag that employs him. Rather than remain stuck writing obits for the rest of his career, and tired of playing the outraged journalist, he decides to win himself a promotion by yoking his byline, as he puts it, to some famous stiff.
This is Florida, remember, scene of much weirdness in American life, so it should be no surprise that the dead body over which Tagger sets out to resurrect his so-called career turns out to be a low order of rock star, one Jimmy Stoma, victim of a rather unfortunate diving accident.
Conspiring to impede tiresome Tagger from reaching his hollow goal is a clutch of characters so silly and one-dimensional as to amount to little more than caricatures. There's perky Emma, the paper's editor; Jimmy's glamorous widow who goes by the improbable, even for Florida, name of Cleo Rio; and the greedy publisher, Race Maggad, so dastardly as to invite images of mustache twirling and sounds of evil chuckling. Will Tagger outwit the witless and save his career? Who cares.
Although the central question the novel how to maintain journalistic scruples in a social environment that increasingly favors flash and profit over truth is a vitally important one, Mr. Hiaasen, who is himself a seasoned and award-winning journalist, evidently has decided it wasn't worth even an attempt at a serious answer.

A few years ago when an instructor in a writing course advised Tess Uriza Holthe to write about family myths, the stories came tumbling out of her. Mrs. Holthe was born in this country, but the rest of her family immigrated from the Philippines, and all through her growing up they told her the stories and legends of the "old country." When she'd finished writing down the tales and researching the islands' history, she realized she had her first novel, When The Elephants Dance (Crown, $24.95, 372 pages), an engaging and surrealistic account of life in the Philippines during World War II.
The title of the work comes from young Alejandro, first of the book's three narrators, who remarks, "When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful." This is a reference to the way the Filipinos, or "chickens," struggled to survive while all around them American and Japanese forces, or "elephants," clashed for control of the islands.
As killing and torture rage in the streets, Alejandro, his older sister Isabella, their humble father Carolito, their quarrelsome neighbor Aling Anna, and the family's quiet friend Mang Ped huddle in a cellar in a town not far from Manilla. To pass the time and to offer each other comfort, they tell their stories of ghosts, of nature spirits, of witches and magic, tales that were the essence of the author's childhood.
Rounding out the cast of characters is Roman, a journalist from a wealthy family, and Dominigo, a guerrilla warrior and also one of the three narrators. The grim and bald-faced accounts of Japanese brutality during the war bear witness and enable Mrs. Holthe to mark the heroism of a nation of courageous people whose complex history and exotic culture has resided for too long on the periphery of American vision.

Weather, as in rain, hail, and damaging winds, is the central force and metaphor in Jean Thompson's Wide Blue Yonder (Simon & Schuster, $24., 367 pages). Set in Illinois during the sizzling summer of 1999, the author records the systems of passing warm and cold fronts as single mom Elaine, successful in business but less so as a parent, clashes with Josie, her troubled teenaged daughter.
Josie works a dead-end summer job at the local Taco Bell and, among other things, plots to nab a handsome cop named Officer Crook to relieve her boredom. As for Elaine, she finds her own form of relief by overindulging in food and wine. When Josie's great-uncle Harvey (newly released from a mental institution), enters their lives the result is a series of emotional and atmospheric disturbances.
Basically harmless, Harvey is addicted to the Weather Channel and to all matters meteorological. He can recite a torrent of weather facts, though he also has an unsettling habit of making certain predictions. As Harvey's physical health and faculties begin to fail, Elaine and Josie set aside their difference and draw closer only to have pressure build again when a dangerous criminal blows in from the West.
Jean Thompson is best known for her sharp depiction of quirky characters readers encountered in her story collection "Who Do You Love," which was a National Book Award finalist. Once again, the author is as accurate as Doppler radar in tracking the emotional highs and lows of her eccentric but wholly empathetic crew.

Three to See the King (Picador USA, $19, 167 pages) is the third novel to come from Magnus Mills, a former London bus driver whose previous books have won him wide acclaim. His current tale, an allegory written in a deceptively simple and wholly accessible style, evokes the journey of the magi to see the Christ child and touches on such metaphysical concerns as the individual ego and its place in the world, and where, exactly, the soul resides.
The story begins with the unnamed narrator who comes across an abandoned house made entirely of tin in which he decides to settle. Soon he is joined by a woman whom he does not know, although this doesn't stop her from moving in and taking over his life. Then several neighbors show up at his doorstep and encourage him to join them as they journey westward beyond the horizon to meet with a reclusive sage in what they think will be Utopia.
As in the story of early Christianity, the group succumbs to envy, bickering, and betrayal and soon all hope and good intentions vanish. With no options left to him, the narrator, a sort of everyman who remains unnamed, returns to his tin house, convinced that his adventure, despite its disappointing conclusion, was for the best. Mr. Mills has turned out an odd but insightful little book, one driven by the engines of symbolism, religious faith and the human desire for connection to something larger.

R.C. Scott is a writer living in Alexandria, Va.

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