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Heart of Darkness and Disharmony 

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Heart of Darkness

Readers of James Lee Burke's steeped-in-the-bayou Dave Robicheaux books may not be aware that Burke has created other spellbinding characters as well. One of them is rough-as-sandpaper Billy Bob Holland, a former Texas Ranger turned attorney, who is even more troubled by his own, and life's, darker side than Robicheaux.

Holland is the central character in Burke's latest, "Bitterroot," (Simon & Schuster, $25) which takes its name from a sparsely populated Montana valley where self-delusional patriotic Americans, violent mobsters, fly fishermen (of the effete and expert varieties) and stunningly violent ex-cons find the space they need to practice living their lives.

But fans of Burke's Robicheaux should take note: Billy Bob Holland is to Dave Robicheaux as "Straw Dogs" is to "Mary Poppins." Holland's world is studded with breathtaking violence on nearly every page, and Holland, although he wages battle against it, often succumbs.

That said, "Bitterroot" is every bit as good a read as Burke's fans - of whatever bent - have come to look forward to.

In this outing, Holland has left behind his home in the Texas hardpan to visit his old friend Doc Voss, a troubled man who's still fighting battles he lost in Vietnam. Voss is in the midst of another confrontation, this time against mining interests who threaten a pristine and verdant environment with their reckless extraction policies. Perhaps that's why three men rape Voss' teen-age daughter - to make the point that crusading is not without its consequences.

Added to the mix in this absorbing novel are an East Coast mobster and his coterie of thugs, a right-wing militia leader, an unbalanced young reformatory graduate and, most threatening of all, a psychopathic parolee from Texas with a grudge against Holland.

As usual, Burke mixes his characters and situations into a stew of intrigue, uncertainty, brutality, sadism and practical morality that leaves the reader confused until the end about who's right and who's wrong - but turning pages as fast as he can to keep up with the breakneck speed of Burke's plot. — Don Dale

Disharmony

Some writers don't understand the difference between writing and typing. Writing is an art: It takes vision, brains and soul. Typing is fingers flying across the keyboard, words with no meaning behind them. It seems fitting that the narrator of Han Ong's debut novel, "Fixer Chao,"(Farrar Straus &Giroux, $26) is a Filipino typist who feels shortchanged by the American Dream. The narrator, William Paulinha, works odd typing jobs in New York City and prostitutes himself at the Port Authority to make his rent. In short, he's just barely getting by. William hangs out at a sleazy bar called the Savoy, where he meets Shem C, a social-climbing wannabe writer who will change his life. Together, William and Shem C hatch a Feng Shui scam to exact revenge on Manhattan's upper crust.

Although "Fixer Chao" aims to be a searing social satire of America in the late '90s, it's really just typing.

The novel takes place in the mid-'90s, just before Feng Shui, the art of harmonizing one's furnishings with the environment, hit it big. Shem C overhauls William Paulinha's personality into that of William Chao, the Feng Shui master who will infiltrate the penthouse apartments and brownstone mansions of Manhattan's elite. Once inside, instead of arranging the inhabitant's furniture according to the rules of Feng Shui, William will arrange paintings, couches and desk sets in an anti-Feng Shui fashion. For instance, placing a mirror directly opposite the bed is extremely bad luck. The plan works, William and Shem C exact their vengeance on the spoiled social set and get paid handsomely to do so.

Spoofing Feng Shui is an interesting thematic choice because it attacks how American culture tends to adopt other cultures for commercial profit. But the major problem in writing a novel where Feng Shui carries most of the dramatic action is that it's extremely boring. Let's face it, moving furniture around just isn't dramatic.

While the novel is filled with many forgettable characters, their dialogue is the one highlight of the novel. Han Ong, a MacArthur Fellow, is the writer of several critically acclaimed plays, and, accordingly, his dialogue positively sparkles. But with the dragging narrative arc entirely dependent on the ironic manipulation of Feng Shui, "Fixer Chao" never transforms mere typing into writing. — Colleen Curran

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