"Meely LaBauve," "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," "Horse Heaven" 

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Bayou Boy
Ken Well's "Meely LaBauve" (Random House, $19.95) brings to life a unique part of the deep, deep South. Set in the Cajun bayou country of Louisiana, it is the coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Emile "Meely" LaBauve. Meely is a refreshing blend of innocence and wisdom, feistiness and honor who lives by his wits in Catahoula Bayou.

Although he doesn't have much use for formal schooling and attends ninth grade at Catahoula School only sparingly, he has plenty of common sense, teaching the reader the art of skinning a rabbit, making a good "sauce piquante," and living a minimalist life without apology.

Meely's daddy is an alligator hunter and spends most of his time on the wrong side of the law. Unable to cope with the death of his wife, Meely's mom, eight years earlier, he finds solace in strong drink, companionable women and the lure of the big 'gator.

Meely's friends form a rainbow of colorful characters, from wealthy and well-bred Joey Herbert, whose cigar-smoking daddy uses Vitalis and owns most of the area's cane farms, to Cassie Jackson and her boyfriend, Chilly, to pimple-faced Chickie Naquin, who is unfamiliar with a washrag. His friends come to his rescue frequently.

On several occasions, Meely finds himself confronting Junior Guidry, the school bully and the embodiment of all things evil. One day, things look particularly bleak for Meely and his friend Chilly. Junior and his uncle handcuff and beat Chilly and are doing a pretty thorough job of whipping Meely, too. Suddenly, Meely's daddy steps out of nowhere with his Winchester double barrel up at his shoulder …

Author Wells, a writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal, grew up on the banks of Bayou Black, deep in south Louisiana's Cajun belt. In this lively, first-person narrative, he creates a zesty recipe for fine reading. He starts with a base of humor and adventure, then blends in some passion and compassion. He mixes in some tension, virtue and courage and tops it with a layer of lessons for living. The result is "Meely LaBauve," a most-satisfying dish.
— Beverly Walters

He's Not Heavy …
"A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" (Simon & Schuster, $24) is Dave Eggers' first nonfiction effort and it describes a family drama. Four children lose both parents in a little more than a month because of their mother's extended disease and their father's unexpected death. The three oldest survivors are 24, 23 and 21, but then there's 8-year-old Toph, who, it is agreed, needs to be raised in an atmosphere of creativity combined with a solid education.

Dave, the 21-year-old, gets the nod as primary caretaker with 23-year-old Beth acting as sidekick. Based on a Generation-X lifestyle, Dave and Toph have a combination brother/friend (or is it friend/brother?) relationship composed of an odd combination of imagination, obligation and survival needs. According to Eggers: "He is my twenty-four-hour classroom, my captive audience. He is a lucky, lucky boy. And no one can stop me." Here you can see Eggers' need for total control. The world according to Eggers is often self-centered, but does allow a love for Toph.

The duo move to Berkeley to be near Beth's law school. From Little League to the banter of PTA meetings to an apartment known for its squalor, Eggers enters the "Berkeley-ness of Berkeley" with his little brother.

The story of the survival takes up half the book. Through long, often unidentified dialogue, we see the growth of the brothers' relationship. But Toph's life becomes settled. He is happy, and the reader is left with Eggers' stream-of-consciousness writing describing his two magazine-writing experiences, his interviewing for MTV's The Real World, and, finally, a return to Lake Forest, Ill., where he winds up the book with a James Joyce monologue about his mother's death.

At times, Eggers is a very strong writer. His adjectival phrases are wonderful explorations of word groupings, and his transitions from chapter to chapter are fine. A subtle humor grips the most dire experiences, but other humor appears coded: pen names, product seals, scribbled lists, repetitive sounds. So, one asks, is this the story about a family's survival or about one character's search for personal growth? Is it one or two books?

Warning: For a good read stop at page 147.
— Beth Morelli.

Heads up:
If you love horses and racing, you will revel in Jane Smiley's "Horse Heaven" (Knopf, $26). Apparently there are thousands of readers who want to know all about horses, including their training and all the strange physical things that can happen to them, because this book leapt onto the best-seller lists when it was published. But for the rest of us, the plot is confusing and the story too long.
-Rozanne Epps


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