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Books in brief

>YOUNG ADULT

The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi; Little Brown, $17.99. 434 pages. Ages 12 and up.

The author, a National Book Award finalist for "Ship Breaker," paints a terrifying futuristic America, where violence and death stalk the land as rival armies battle for supremacy in a dystopian chaos that makes Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" look mild in comparison. It's a place stalked by ravenous coywolvs and giant crocodiles, where refugees scrap for food, where laughing soldiers cut the hands off prisoners. Two unlikely allies, Mouse and Mahlia, had taken refuge with a kindly doctor in a jungle village but are forced to flee and stumble upon a wounded "augment" -- a bioengineered beast of war named Tool. Then Mouse is taken prisoner by soldiers; Mahlia must decide whether to flee in search of a better future or backtrack into danger to try to save her friend. Bacigalupi has written a pulse-pounding, gripping adventure set against a complex political backdrop of big questions about humans' capacity for morality in the face of chaos. As Tool observes at one point: "It only takes a few politicians to stoke division, or a few demagogues encouraging hatred to set your kind upon one another Destroying a place like the Drowned Cities is easy when you have human beings to work with." The author sets the dramatic finale in the drowned streets of Washington, D.C., where the all-seeing Colonel Glen Stern is holed up in the Capitol Building, as scavengers cart away the marble. The violence makes this more suitable for 14 and up.

-- Jean Westmoore

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>NONFICTION

Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and The Remarkable Story of "A Confederacy of Dunces" by Cory MacLauchlin, Da Capo Press, (319 pages, $26)

This is a sad story well-told that one might caption: "Literary failure becomes huge success after suicide." "Butterfly" is the earnest, no frills-account of John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969), author of "A Confederacy of Dunces," an American novel frequently touted as a work of genius.

Cory MacLauchlin writes about New Orleans native Toole, noting that "while his suicide is well-known, his personality, his struggles and his triumphs, in essence, his life has hitherto remained obscure."

No more. MacLauchlin, a member of the English faculty at Germanna Community College in Virginia, renders Toole's life story with understanding, tenderness and the celebration it deserves. Toole's mother Thelma turned out to be a helpful tyrant to her only son.

Thelma was in his corner all his life, promoting his genius. But she had a quarrelsome, sometimes mean streak that made it difficult for her son. Young Kenny, as she called him, was advantaged having a mother who introduced him to culture, the arts and music, but it cost him. When talking to his mother, he'd refer to other kids as "those children."

Toole grew to be a natural actor, mimic, observer and writer. If James Joyce had Dublin, Toole had New Orleans as his metier. It wasn't until Toole enlisted in the Army and taught English to draftees in Puerto Rico that he had the freedom from his mother and environment to begin his masterpiece, "Confederacy."

But Toole had no luck publishing "Confederacy." He wrote back and forth to publisher Robert Gottlieb of Simon & Schuster for two years. Gottlieb recognized his talent and encouraged him, but told Toole that he needed the material in "Confederacy" to go somewhere; in short, his "pudding needed a theme."

Toole tried to take Gottlieb's suggestions but wasn't able to satisfy the publisher. His health deteriorated and, on a road outside Biloxi, Miss., he committed suicide.

Toole's mother Thelma did not give up. When she discovered the manuscript she continued to push for its publication but with no success. Finally, she imposed upon the Catholic writer, Walker Percy, to read the material. Largely to get Thelma off his back, Percy read it and was astonished. He spearheaded the publishing of the novel in 1980 by LSU Press and it won the Pulitzer Prize. By the way, the title of the novel comes from Jonathan Swift, "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him."

-- Michael D. Langan