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By Ishmael Reed
180 pages, $16.95

With his eighth novel, "The Terrible Threes," Buffalo-bred writer Ishmael Reed continues to show why he is regarded by many as the satire king of American letters.

This breakneck sprint through an America of the 1990s that only he could have conjured finds Reed in top form, painting mustaches beneath the noses of his regular victims and leaving his inimitable "I.R. wuz here" scrawled on the walls of the ramshackle institutions that house them.

In this sequel to his 1982 novel, "The Terrible Twos," Reed provides the targets of his stinging social criticism -- feminists, the black bourgeoisie, the religious right, etc. -- with only the thinnest of veils, which he then proceeds to shear away.

Reed's style is most often compared with that of a boxer or a jazz musician. In "The Terrible Threes," he shows he can still jab and move and play changes in a manner that inspired no less an authority than Max Roach to call him "the Charlie Parker of American fiction."

Like "The Terrible Twos," "The Terrible Threes" is by turns a detective story, a tale of political intrigue, a social critique and a Christmas story. But it is at all moments simultaneously deadly funny and deadly serious.

The novel continues the stories of fashion model turned "hands off" president Dean Clift, detective turned taxi driver Nance Saturday, the Christmas spirit tag team of St. Nicholas and Black Peter, and a horde of fellow travelers.

Reed manages to weave these disparate characters into simultaneously unraveling conspiracies to rid the United States of its "surplus population" and to put the agents of the true spirit of Christmas at the permanent disposal of corporate America.

This is fairly typical stuff for Reed. What is strange about "The Terrible Threes" is the emergence within this bizarre story of a softer, more sympathetic voice than has been ever been present in Reed's fiction.

This gentle voice, which is familiar from some of the essays in his non-fiction collections "Writin' Is Fightin' " and "Shrovetide in Old New Orleans," enables Reed to invest certain characters with the power to change the bleak landscape he creates for the better.

"The Terrible Threes" at first gives the impression of disjointedness, but it gradually becomes clear that this is precisely Reed's point: Those in power cannot rule because they have absolutely no connection to those who have placed them in charge.

The heroes in "The Terrible Threes" are those people who go about quietly helping to improve the lives of their fellows on an individual level without thinking of personal gain.

This is not to suggest that this decidedly uncurmudgeonly tone carries the day in "The Terrible Threes." The exposed nerve that is Reed's intelligence wouldn't stand for that.

Still, it was a nice change of pace.

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