This Week's Reads

Sabina Murray and Robert Ferrigno.

A Carnivore's Inquiry

By Sabina Murray (Grove Press, $23) Although 23-year-old Katherine Shea is obsessed with cannibals, the literal kind, she herself is more of a metaphorical man-eater. Or at least that's how it seems at first. The protagonist of this new novel by Sabina Murray (whose short stories won her a PEN/Faulkner Award) ruminates on myriad flesh-eaters, from Hannibal Lecter to the subjects of Theodore Gericault's The Raft of Medusa, while her own predatory tendencies are, on the surface, limited to her dating practices. She picks up men with the casual ease of selecting a package of ground beef at the grocery store. Having just returned to New York City after wandering around Europe as Carnivore begins, Katherine is without an address or a job, and you sense that her immediate and almost blind acceptance of Boris, a Russian novelist with a lingering ex- girlfriend, has mostly to do with meeting simple needs, like a bed to sleep in. But the more you learn about Katherine's fractured family and her fixation with real and fictional cannibals, the less simple her needs seem. Murray has Katherine dive into frequent intellectual analyses of Goya, Melville, and the like, but her knowledge of the arts is specific to work centered on cannibalism, and we soon start to suspect that her flesh-eating fixation is more than an academic specialty. Murray's almost desiccated writing can be very graphic—her mini-primers on the history of flesh-eating fiends make up much of the, er, meat of the novel—but Carnivore isn't full of blood and guts. Neither, however, is it a love story. In fact, love doesn't enter into the majority of the novel's conversations, and because Katherine is so vividly drawn as a distant and intelligent loner, you accept her lack of emotion. Murray metes Katherine's complex character out little by little over the course of the book, but Katherine is ultimately very flat. She isn't un­interesting, just remote. Not unlike Bret Easton Ellis' Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Katherine is almost in­human. But because Murray is adept at coloring Katherine's scattered, violent wanderings (the author drops well-placed descriptions of what her odd heroine has for dinner: liver and onions, large steaks, osso buco with the marrow sucked from the bones), you eventually get to know her and you know she's capable of some rather unpleasant things. Near the close of this not-quite-a- thriller, Katherine's mother, an important but mostly ghostlike character throughout the book, tells her daughter that hunger, not love, is the most important thing in the world because once you satisfy it, you are free. It says a lot about Katherine—and about the mood of A Carnivore's Inquiry, as well as the nature of need and desire—that her only reply is that freedom never really makes her feel very free. LAURA CASSIDY The Wake-up

By Robert Ferrigno (Pantheon Books, $23.95) How can a man as nice as Robert Ferrigno have such scary, nasty characters in his imagination? The latest noir thriller from the Kirkland writer (and long-ago founder of The Rocket) includes a woman from trailer-park land clawing her way into high society; her husband, a surfer who creates recipes to add special features to metham­phetamine; her brother, who's relegated to housekeeping tasks until he borrows a handgun; and a couple of strange enforcers—Arturo, who is cold and cruel and seems to truly enjoy his work, and Vlad, who loves The Lion King, was the subject of medical experiments in Romania, and came to America to see the cowboys but accidentally fell in with Arturo. Also appearing are a competing crank manufacturer who isn't afraid of murder and intimidation; government operatives who bend the laws; and our hero, Frank Thorpe, a former spook who has been let go by the "shop" where he worked in a netherworld of government agents and terrorists and lots of ambiguity about the difference between right and wrong. Oh, and a small boy who is selling candy at LAX, where this story gets rolling. Thorpe is in the airport on his way to a vacation when he sees the boy get bowled over by an uncaring businessman. Thorpe decides to right that wrong. Using his spycraft skills, he tracks down the businessman, who he learns is an art dealer, and decides to put together a "wake-up"—a disciplinary action, a warning that his behavior will not be tolerated. Depending on what Thorpe can turn up, it might be proof that the man is cheating on his wife, or perhaps a sudden insufficiency of funds in a Cayman Islands account. Just a little something to wake him up to a new way of being. But while working on this, Thorpe inadvertently falls into the web of crank, its makers and dealers, its users and abusers. Mayhem ensues—complicated by a subplot involving Thorpe's ongoing death duel with the Engineer, a character from his past who, among other things, killed the woman Frank loved. Ferrigno packs plenty of action into his story, taking the reader on a roller coaster through the high income and lowlife of Southern California, with enough twists and sudden drops to demand Dramamine. But the book's real power comes from those sketchy characters Ferrigno so vividly portrays. These folks come to life through the author's descriptive powers and through dialogue that rings with authenticity. The story is also alive with Thorpe's struggles over issues of right and wrong. His old job forced him to break the law in order to follow orders; now his personal moral code tells him that he knows the right thing to do, even if it means doing "wrong." Yet it is a wise reader who takes the novel's epigraph to heart: pulp icon Jim Thompson's adage that "There is only one basic plot: Things aren't what they seem." Even Thorpe learns that he is wrong—wrong about everything. But in the end, he, and Ferrigno, gets it very right. JOANNE GARRETT Robert Ferrigno will appear at Third Place Books, 7 p.m. Thurs., Aug. 19.

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