By Meghan Daum.
Viking. 309 pp. $24.95.

In this winning debut novel from Meghan Daum (known best for her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Open City), wry TV reporter Lucinda Trout bails on big-city life for Prairie City, USA–a tiny metropolis bound by its motto, “Open Hearts, Open Minds.” While reporting from PC for New York Up Early! on housewives addicted to methamphetamine, Trout falls for the heartland. She convinces her boss in New York to station her there for a full year; Trout envisions producing “The Quality of Life Report,” a series that will allow urban hermits to breathe vicariously through her in a place where “quality of life flows like water.” Despite the cheap rent and good cheer, however, Trout’s own quality of life steadily declines in PC. Her new, bad-boy boyfriend becomes a drug addict; her rented farm is freezing cold; her stylized TV segments, during which neighbors are forced to don plaid shirts and cowboy boots, justifiably alienate most of the community.

In the course of telling Trout’s story, Daum manages to present, then explode, a motley crew of American stereotypes: the rail-thin media hotshot; the country bumpkin; the folk-singer lesbian; the jaded ex-New Yorker who wants a simpler life. No one escapes Daum’s wit or criticism; ultimately, each earns her respect. (It bears mentioning, too, that animals inhabit this book, including a pig, for reasons better left unexplained, named Diva Starz.) If the premise sounds a bit stale–big-city girl searches for happiness, love and better life in small town–The Quality of Life Report is anything but. Daum’s humor and humanity have seen to that.

By John Haskell.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 180 pp. $20.

The cover of I Am Not Jackson Pollock advises us to expect a handful of stories. But “story” does not properly describe what lies within these pages. True, Haskell’s pieces are, to an extent, fictional narratives. However, they’re also haunting history lessons, sophisticated notes on film and melancholy meditations on survival and death. In “Glenn Gould in Six Parts,” Haskell writes that “all of us create a world…an individual world in which we function.” And it’s that personal space–around known figures like Jackson Pollock, Hedy Lamarr, Glenn Gould and Laika the Cosmonaut Dog–Haskell lovingly imagines, explores and embellishes.

More examples of Haskell’s peculiar sense of form: In “Elephant Feelings,” Haskell links the stories of Topsy the elephant (who was electrocuted at Coney Island in 1903 for killing a man), Saartjie Baartman (who is better known as the Hottentot Venus) and the Hindu god Ganesha (who walks with the body of a man but carries the head of an elephant) to illustrate how the combination of frustrated love and anger can destroy a life. In “The Judgment of Psycho” he jumps from an investigation of the sexual dynamic between Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins to a discussion of the Trojan War. Each piece is equally original, sad and strange; a collection recommended for artsy recent college grads, moms who like independent film and anyone who prefers feeling blue.

By Benjamin Cavell.
Knopf. 191 pp. $22.

Neil LaBute couldn’t have written a colder, funnier or more brutal collection of stories about what it means to be a man than this debut by Benjamin Cavell. A former collegiate boxer and editor of the Harvard Crimson, Cavell uses, among others, a pumped-up paintball player, a young politician, a finished boxer and a sensitive writer to examine the darker side of masculinity. But it’s Cavell’s style–practically naked, muscular and tense–that might be the most stereotypically male thing about this book. The spare description, the tight dialogue and the crude jokes all work here. Even when Cavell’s characters are overtly frightening–like Logan Bryant, the paintball enthusiast/sporting-goods store employee/iron pumper in “Balls, Balls, Balls,” whose “cock is nine and a half inches long and as thick as some men’s wrists”–their insecurities insure their complexity. (After “some slut” tells Logan that a colleague of his is “packing almost eleven,” our narrator confesses that he’s “been seriously considering the experimental penile-enlargement surgery.”) Cavell’s stories aren’t for the easily offended. But if, for you, a little black humor goes a long way, there is plenty in this collection to laugh at.

AFTER: A Novel.
By Francine Prose.
HarperCollins/Joanna Colter Books. 330 pp. $16.99.

In the wake of a Columbine-like tragedy some fifty miles away, Central High becomes a virtual prison. To “protect” Central’s students, grief counselor Dr. Willner–who’s more like a prison warden–slowly strips away each student’s rights: A dress code is imposed, cell phones are banned, drug tests are administered, speech is regulated and potentially problematic students are efficiently whisked off campus, sent to work camps and never heard from again. Even creepier, as the school administration sends a nightly e-mail dispatch to parents explaining how these precautions are integral to students’ safety, moms and dads become robotic, stunned into compliance by Dr. Willner’s scare tactics. As in any good teen apocalypse-style novel, to save themselves, the kids must trust no one.

Tom Bishop, narrator of this Young Adult novel, is a sweet, intelligent athlete at the center of a diverse group of basketball players, each of whom struggles with the crackdown in his own way. But Prose, known for shrewd criticism and smart (adult) novels, has made Tom’s voice too plain, punctuated by random spurts of teen-speak, in an effort to appeal to the middle-school set. While Tom isn’t an unconvincing character, it remains to be seen whether an intermittent “man” or “dude” or “bingo” in the dialogue is enough to sustain the attention of this book’s intended audience. Let’s hope so; despite its lack of literary flair, Prose’s chilling tale provides a lesson in civil liberties that every kid–and adult– should learn.