Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee's last novel, "Elizabeth Costello," was an unfulfilling hodgepodge of tedious interviews, lectures and essays. He...

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“Slow Man”
by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 263 pp., $24.95

Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee’s last novel, “Elizabeth Costello,” was an unfulfilling hodgepodge of tedious interviews, lectures and essays. He follows it with a series of totally satisfying, tricky narrative surprises in the craftily adept “Slow Man.”

It is a sunny day, a “glorious morning” in Adelaide, Australia, when 60-year-old archival photographer Paul Rayment, “single, solitary, alone,” sets off on what is supposed to be an uneventful bicycle ride. But Paul’s not “ready for what comes next,” nor is the unprepared reader. Struck by a car driven by young Wayne Blight (keep an eye on names with double meanings), Paul loses a leg and enters rehab and recovery in anticipation of a “circumscribed life.”

He doesn’t count on the straight-shooting Croatian nurse, middle-aged Marijana Jokic (more name games) entering his life. Nor could he or the reader expect novelist Elizabeth Costello, now 72, to show up in what is ostensibly Paul’s story.

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What is Costello doing in Paul’s life? That is one of Coetzee’s keen tricks. Costello functions as novelist and “mischiefmaker,” “hunting around for characters.” Like an intrusive author-narrator in a classic 18th- or 19th-century novel, here she is an intrusive character as author. Is Costello writing Paul’s novel? Is this a Pirandello-like fiction, a writer (Coetzee) in search of an author-character (Costello) in search of a character (Rayment) (cut from the same raiment)? In lesser hands, the conceit would be cumbersome. Coetzee’s skillful manipulation of narrative technique never overburdens the basic story line.

Paul imposes himself on the Jokics. He writes Marijana’s husband, Miroslav, requesting the status of “godfather.” He offers to pay boarding-school fees for their young model-handsome son, Drago. He professes love for Marijana.

Elizabeth quickly intercedes. She suggests a “companionate marriage” for Elizabeth and Paul. After all, she says, “For me alone Paul Rayment was born and I for him.” Is this Coetzee’s answer to the question often asked of writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” But supra-novelist Coetzee has plenty of ideas for Paul and Elizabeth and for all the other characters in search of a novel. Paul must come to terms with his human condition, understand that “after a certain age we have all lost a leg, more or less.” With the help of an imagined novelist, he discovers that an imagined life is worth living before he kisses Costello farewell.

Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak

“A Man Without a Country”
by Kurt Vonnegut
Seven Stories Press, 146 pp., $23.95

Octogenarian Kurt Vonnegut is in fine, ranting form in “A Man Without a Country,” his new book of essays and speeches.

Much of this collection is a running diatribe against the war in Iraq, the excesses of the free-market economy and our oil-dependent society’s propensity for making “transportation whoopee.” Indeed, Vonnegut is so disgusted with the current leadership in Washington, D.C., that he’s inclined to disown the entire nation. Then he expands on his dismay by assessing the global situation and concluding, “I think the planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of us with AIDS and new strains of flu and tuberculosis.” He frets that folks don’t seem to care much about working for a better future, which leads him to assert, “Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain, I now give up on people, too.”

Well, the guy is 82. He’s permitted some grumpy hyperbole. He’s also as wickedly funny as ever. For example: Ruing his ill-starred but hilarious turn as owner of a Saab car dealership, he says, “I now believe my failure as a dealer so long ago explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: Why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel Prize for Literature.”

“A Man Without A Country” celebrates humanism, jazz, engaging literature and undersung heroes. Vonnegut pays tribute to friends who spout gruff wisdom and to relatives who swap agreeable blather. And when it comes to librarians, he wears his heart on his sleeve. He might say what he will about us, but there will always be a spot in our hearts and on our bookshelves for the author of “Breakfast of Champions,” “Slaughterhouse Five” and this new collection.

Reviewed by Barbara Lloyd McMichael

“The King of Kings County”
by Whitney Terrell
Viking, 361 pp., $24.95

Like his notable first novel “The Huntsman,” Whitney Terrell’s second book is set in his home town of Kansas City, Mo. This story moves from the 1950s to 2004, a generous sprawl of rapidly changing times whose most colorful character is less the narrator, Jack Acheson, than his rascal father, Alton, whom his son dubs “the king of Kings County.”

Jack, an ordinary teenager as the book opens, chronicles his school days, inept romances and gradual growing up, and at the same time includes Alton’s embarrassing get-rich schemes, which sometimes involve the father and son not only with the fabulously rich Bowen family, but also with underworld connections. These currents of corruption swirl around Jack, who just wishes his dapper dad — Alton’s favorite outfit is a yellow linen suit and white shoes — could “be a success without me.”

Alton plans to strike it rich by purchasing land to resell for huge profits when the first interstate highway is built through Missouri. Good idea. Problem is: no money. Jack’s dad tries to raise some cash by wangling his way into a salaried position with the Bowens; getting mixed up with the mob; and then selling homes to blacks in white neighborhoods, helping to create white flight, poverty-stricken public schools and the decades-long death of downtown Kansas City.

Jack does what any kid with a misbehaving parent does: He hangs out with pals until he graduates from high school and can run away to college, then law school, then a New York job. But many years later, family ties draw him home.

Terrell’s characters are wonderful fun. His grasp of hometown history lends a deep, sobering backdrop to Alton’s antics. Near the end, a couple of farfetched events weaken an otherwise impressive novel, whose slow-going opening half finally pays off in a big way.

Reviewed by Irene Wanner