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Sunday, May 4, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Future Behind US' Explores A Deal Gone Lethally Wrong

Special To The Seattle Times

Paperback pick of the week

"Let's Put the Future Behind Us," by Jack Womack (Grove Atlantic, $12). Moscow, 1995. Roaming gangsters make the streets unsafe. Ethnic animosity is simmering toward violence. Black-market transactions are strictly in dollars, not rubles. Bribery and corruption are rampant. Neo-fascist and nationalist splinter groups challenge the woozy authority of the Yeltsin regime.

This is the setting of the latest novel by New York writer Jack Womack ("Random Acts of Senseless Violence"), and he brings to it some ghoulishly baroque flourishes: a crematorium that has unusual uses for its end-product; a team of forgers specializing in historical documents who "can prove John Kennedy shot himself, as long as we are paid in advance." Maxim Alexeich Borodin ("Call me Max") is the narrator-entrepreneur who guides the reader through this sometimes fantastical urban landscape. In a purring, unctuous, heavily ironic voice, he outlines the "delirious complexities" of a business deal gone lethally wrong.

Womack's groundwork is skillfully done, and some of its payoffs are magnificent, even if car chases, drug deals and shootouts sometimes bring the book perilously close to conventional thriller in its latter half. More engaging is the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Max's son 10 years earlier, a subplot that leads into a melancholy parable about the lures of the West. Despite its flaws, "Let's Put the Future Behind Us" is an enjoyable vigorous read, offering an antic amble through hazardous political terrain.

Fiction

"Lily White," by Susan Isaacs (Harper, $6.99). This latest novel by the Long Island writer ("Comprising Positions") concerns the daughter of an upwardly mobile Jewish family: a criminal lawyer on a quest for a meaningful partner in life. Seattle Times critic Melinda Bargreen said Lily's story "entertains - and lingers in the memory."

"Mason's Retreat," by Christopher Tilghman (Picador USA, $13). A first novel about the emotional turbulence of a well-to-do Maryland family on the eve of World War II. In his Seattle Times review, Erik Lundegaard called Tilghman "an intelligent, insightful writer." Also new in paperback is Tilghman's debut story collection, "In a Father's Place" (Picador USA, $12).

"The Last of the Savages," by Jay McInerney (Vintage, $12). In his latest novel, the author of "Brightness Falls" and "Bright Lights, Big City" traces the 30-year friendship of two prep-school classmates: a socially ambitious Irish Catholic and the renegade son of a wealthy Southern family.

"Dreams of the Centaur," by Montserrat Fontes (Norton, $13). A historical novel about a 19th-century Mexican ranching family and their involvement in the exiling and enslavement of the Yaqui Indians under the oppressive regime of Porfirio Diaz.

"Painted Desert," by Frederick Barthelme (Penguin, $11.95). Two TV-and-cyberculture aficionados, inspired by the Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson debacle, head through the American Southwest in search of something real. In her Seattle Times review, Sandra Chait said that Barthelme "captures a middle-class world in which televised catastrophes and the distanced, often confabulated, communication of e-mail constitute virtual living."

"In the Language of Love: A Novel in 100 Chapters," by Diana Schoemperlen (Penguin, $12.95). Using commonplace words as starting points, this Canadian writer assembles 100 vignettes that reveal the life of an artist from girlhood to motherhood. Seattle Times reviewer Nancy Pearl called this "a lovely and compassionate novel, filled with wit, unexpected insight and pointed observation."

"Sandra Nichols Found Dead," by George V. Higgins (Owl, $12). In his new novel, Higgins ("The Friends of Eddie Coyle") brings back criminal defense lawyer Jerry Kennedy to investigate the murder of a good-hearted waitress by her rich rascal of a husband. In his "Scene of the Crime" column, Adam Woog called this "a brilliant novel of manners, showing what happens when Boston's upper stratum brushes against the lower masses."

"Rumpole and the Angel of Death," by John Mortimer (Penguin, $12.99). Five new "memoirs" narrated by Mortimer's ever-popular solicitor-sleuth Horace Rumpole, plus one written by his wife, Hilda (better known as "She Who Must Be Obeyed").

Nonfiction

"Heaven's Gate: Cult Suicide in San Diego," by the Staff of the New York Post (Harper, $4.99). Hop aboard the comet with Marshall Applewhite and friends, in this instant book - the first, no doubt, of many - about grim folly in California.

"Elizabeth: A Biography of Britain's Queen," by Sarah Bradford (Riverhead, $16). That's "Elizabeth," as in "Queen Elizabeth II." Seattle Times reviewer Kimberly B. Marlowe found Bradford's prose "choppy and pedantic," but admired her detail on "life in the royal lane" and the extensive research that went into this portrait of Britain's crown head.

"Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War," by Peter Maass (Vintage, $13). This harrowing look at the turmoil in Bosnia examines the roles of the war's aggressors, its victims, as well as the journalists, diplomats and political leaders involved. Seattle Times reviewer Joseph F. Keppler called this "the most important book you could possibly read about Bosnia."

"The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father," by Mary Gordon (Vintage, $13). The well-known novelist ("Final Payments") discovers that her doting father was not at all what she thought him to be. Seattle Times book editor Donn Fry called this a "complex, moving memoir" about a man of extreme contradictions: a Jewish antisemite, a Catholic convert who published pornography.

"The Last Stand: The War Between Wall Street and Main Street Over California's Ancient Redwoods," by David Harris (Sierra Club, $15). A study of the legal showdown between the environmental group Earth First! and a Texas conglomerate over the logging of old-growth forest held by the Pacific Lumber Company, a subsidiary financed by Wall Street's notorious Michael Milken. In his Seattle Times review, Kevin J. Hamilton called the book "an arresting portrait of the redwood battle at its high-water mark."

"Dark Witness: When Black People Should Be Sacrificed (Again)," by Ralph Wiley (One World/Ballantine, $12). An African-American writer's bitter, satirical look at some of the most hotly debated issues of black life today.

"Celestine: Voices from a French Village," by Gillian Tindall (Owl, $12.95), and "The Burgermeister's Daughter: Scandal in a Sixteenth-Century German Town," by Steven Ozment (HarperPerennial, $13). Love letters, legal records and other documents help bring to life the ordinary citizens of 19th-century France and 16th-century Germany, respectively.

"Inside U.S.A.," by John Gunther (New Press, $19.95). A 50th-anniversary edition of a hefty overview (978 pages) of the United States of the 1930s and 1940s, by the popular journalist and author ("Death Be Not Proud"). Includes several chapters on the Pacific Northwest.

"Disappearance: A Map," by Sheila Nickerson (Harcourt Brace, $11). Subtitled "A Meditation on Death and Loss in the High Latitudes," this Juneau poet's second nonfiction book laments the loss of friends, adventurers past and present, and whole cultures.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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