This Week's Reads

Hank Stuever, Jim Hightower, Suzanne Schlosberg, George Hagen, and Andrew Exum.

Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere

By Hank Stuever (Holt, $24) A journalist recounting his fieldwork in Kerouacian form is nothing new. And it seems even older still after Hunter S. Thompson. But unlike Thompson and his trunk full of psychedelic escapism, Washington Post staff writer Hank Stuever soberly and humbly embraced his bleak early beats, identifying in an almost familial way with what he terms "the American elsewhere." In this collection of 26 pieces previously published in the Post, Albuquerque Tribune, and Austin American-Statesman, Stuever presents himself as a champion of the underdog, the has-been, the sweet and low-down. He professes empathy and kinship with floundering former child stars, family-owned discount funeral parlors, and the regulars at Kampground of America. He relates the sad fate of Dan DeCarlo, the originator of Josie and the Pussy Cats, who drew inspiration from sketches he made on love letters to his wife. Later, DeCarlo was fired by Archie Comics for claiming rights to the icons. Given such seemingly lackluster assignments, Stuever adopts a hyper- conscious, soulful stance regarding society's underappreciated nooks. His essays often give surprising depth and richness to the anonymous unknowns. At his best, Stuever provides a bittersweet, unique perspective on the places you've looked at but never seen, and the people you've talked to but who eventually blurred with other forgotten faces. His last cluster of more recent stories feels out of place, though. The book becomes less about the intriguing, overlooked corners of society and more about Stuever's rising journalistic status. He addresses tragedies like Sept. 11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, which are hardly part of his American elsewhere. And by the end of Off Ramp, Stuever is hardly a humble journalistic nobody, which tips the book off balance. That he describes his precious elsewhere with such insightful eloquence also proves that he's moved beyond it. EMILY PAGE Hank Stuever will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., July 29. Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush

By Jim Hightower (Viking, $21.95) Living in the Lone Star State during the 1980s, I voted for Jim Hightower—twice—as Texas' agriculture commissioner, a more powerful post than it sounds because it oversees the all-important oil industry. I never knew my votes would come to this. After his two terms, Hightower leveraged his politically populist background into a career as a radio talk-show host and left-leaning media populist—a feat so improbable that, by the 1990s, he could rightly claim to have no competition as "America's most popular populist." But Hightower is still claiming it, as if Michael Moore never happened, and Beating feels just a tad tired. With the Rolling Thunder community fairs, however, there's now a welcome activist component to Hightower's reliable old shtick. Most of the items in his new collection have been culled from his radio commentaries, Web material, newspaper columns, and newsletter (the Hightower Lowdown), which makes for familiar reading. Inside is a mélange of short, bathroom-reading-length items: mostly populist outrage at the various Bush assaults on society's underdogs, plus humor that would be called down-home—except for the suspicion that nobody's home really sounds like this. A little of it goes a really long way, a natural check on any inclination the reader might have to read all 234 pages in one sitting. There's a fair amount of good information in Beating, but, frustratingly, you'll never find it again without leaving notes in the margins. Beyond five broad chapters addressing the environment, the economy, food, liberty, and "the common good," there appears to be no real organizing principle or central argument being made. It's meant to be read in three-minute increments, about the length of Hightower's radio commentaries, and it doesn't really matter which increments come first. Remove the introduction and conclusion, and the rest could run in any order. What separates Hightower's work from the flood of other Bush-bashing titles during this election year? Simple: It's a book meant to be read by people who don't read books. The cover—always a marketing clue—shows Hightower defacing a Bush poster. Populist-pandering, or puerile? You decide. GEOV PARRISH Jim Hightower will appear at the Seattle Rolling Thunder Festival in Magnuson Park (7400 Sand Point Way N.E., 206-984-4946,, $10), 8 p.m. Sat., July 31; and at Elliott Bay Book Co., 2 p.m. Sun., Aug. 1. The Curse of the Singles Table: A True Story of 1,001 Nights Without Sex

By Suzanne Schlosberg (Warner, $13.95) Once Sex and the City became a phen­omenon, publishers began hurling this sort of frank, clever sex-advice lit at every single-looking women in sight. Hopping on the trend with her memoir, Suzanne Schlosberg makes it clear that she's getting far less action than Carrie Bradshaw. A Jewish freelance writer from L.A., she takes the inadvertent path of celibacy after various unfulfilling relationships (the most recent with an emotionally blank cop). Schlosberg traces her journey from "B.C.E. (Before the Celibacy Era)" to the final Age of Enlightenment. None of her adventures is that surprising, but she meets some crazy, colorful characters along the way. The variety of inane dating tactics she employs to meet the perfect man will make many women laugh and shudder with recognition. Naturally, she tries online dating and complains about the reality behind those photos. She gives speed dating a whirl at her neighborhood Starbucks, meeting and mingling with 14 singles in eight-minute bursts (yes, it's as depressing as it sounds). She also plays up her demanding, eccentric family and amplifies her own supposedly irresistible, neurotic personality. There's even a bit of travelogue, as she takes escape trips to places as remote as Provideniya, Russia. All of this is entertaining enough without being in any way deep. By the time Schlosberg finally seems close to breaking her dry spell ("the streak"), you're ready for her to stop writing and get laid already. HEATHER LOGUE Suzanne Schlosberg will appear at Third Place Books, 7 p.m. Tues., Aug. 3. The Laments

By George Hagen (Random House, $24.95) Thomas Wolfe told readers they could never go home again. George Hagen might amend that bromide by saying: That's OK. Home was overrated anyway. The eponymous family of his debut novel would certainly agree. Over the course of this busily charming tale, they collect more passport stamps than a diplomatic consul, and this is back in the 1950s and '60s, before jet travel became routine. At the heart of the story is a maternity swindle that could have come straight out of John Irving. Howard and Julia Laments, living in Rhodesia, lend their newborn to the mother of a premature child. Africans do it all the time, their doctor professes; it helps the woman learn how to mother. The therapy backfires, and the mother makes off with the Laments' child—who later dies with her in a car crash. Crushed and humiliated, the Laments raise the woman's baby instead. They name him Will, because "only a child with a will of astonishing fortitude could have survived such a sad beginning." Will's sad beginning turns into a sad childhood, as the Laments uproot time and again for the sake of Howard's engineering work, which he chases around the world. The family moves from Rhodesia to Bahrain to Zambia to London and, finally, to suburban New Jersey. The moves are enriching, but Julia worries about their cost. What is lost to the Laments is a sense of why they keep moving at all. Although Howard believes that his job requires this itinerancy, it becomes apparent that the true font of this constant motion is his and Julia's complicated relationship with their parents. While Howard sniffs at his father's safe, sedate career, Julia resents her mother's stiff propriety and enacts her own rebellion by romanticizing riffraff and instilling in her children a doctrinaire liberalism. Readers with a yen for armchair traveling will enjoy Hagen's lush descriptions, his 19th-century poise. But it seems a lament that a novel so footloose should say so little about the world. Although its action coincides with the decline of colonialism, the rise of Islamic extremism, and the independence movement in Africa, The Laments offers precious few glimpses of these events. Like the posh expatriates they sneer at, the Laments hang out in walled communities, where watercress sandwiches are readily available and the tonic is always fresh. The only black man they know in Africa is their gardener. Unlike Norman Rush's Mating, this novel seems to have trouble juggling the political with the personal. It is perhaps this flaw that makes The Laments a different sort of guilty pleasure. Thanks to Hagen's polished prose, we ooh and ah at the exotic settings and enjoy the metaphysical jet lag of rushing from one continent to the next. But it's harder to care much about the vapor of loneliness that the family's travels leave in their wake. For the natives who pump the Laments' oil and trim their hedges, such lamentations are a luxury. JOHN FREEMAN This Man's Army: A Soldier's Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism

By Andrew Exum (Gotham, $25) Ivy League grad Andrew Exum gets one thing right in his new combat memoir: Soldiers need to tell their stories, and the public needs to listen. Nearly a half-million U.S. troops are currently serving overseas. Understanding who these folks are, what motivates them, and what they see can tell us a lot about who we are as a country and where our burgeoning imperialism may take us. Unfortunately, Exum, who led an Army platoon during the second round of major combat in Afghanistan, is long on action and short on introspection. He's no Anthony Swofford, and this book is no Jarhead. Exum undoubtedly has a worthy story to tell, and he performs admirably when simply tasked with relaying concrete events. He details his four combat operations, bringing us along for chopper rides that hug the Afghan terrain and on search-and-destroy missions that end in 1,000-pound-bomb explosions. He also throws in numerous scenes of soldiers bonding through juvenile high jinks. After Exum kills an Afghan at close range, one of his comrades borrows a page from a Vietnam movie script. He tosses a "death card" onto the corpse, a nine of spades marked "3rd Platoon, A Company. Jihad this, motherfucker." Exum revels in this sort of macho one-upsmanship even as he acknowledges its foolishness. But he fails to make sense of these experiences and the strange impulses that drive men toward them. Patriotic dogma is one balm he applies regularly to avoid reflection. Trigger-happy men acting like boys is a fine thing, it seems, if it's done in the name of defending the nation and protecting democracy. It's those wimpy "East Coast liberals" who don't get it. Exum occasionally tries to uncover why soldiers turn war into a game, but when he gets stuck, he simply gives up. He makes a more sincere effort to elicit meaning after killing the Afghan, but his pages-long search reveals little more than a man still searching. After a noncombat-related injury forces him to leave the Army with the rank of captain, Exum re-enters a civilian world where few really understand him. Now a civilian himself, Exum still clings to the idea that war is the best avenue for real men to distinguish themselves. Some readers may respect his unreconstructed old-school idealism; others are more likely to feel pity instead. WALTER C. STERN

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