Maureen Corrigan

Back in the late 1980s, when I was first starting out as a critic for The Village Voice, one of the books I was assigned was Laura Shapiro's Perfection Salad, a social history of the home economics movement during the turn of the last century.

Most readers these days who know Chester Himes know him for his detective fiction, novels like The Real Cool Killers and Cotton Comes to Harlem, which were written late in his career during the 1950s and '60s. These hard-boiled stories — featuring black New York City police detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson — are brutal and wildly surreal. But no more brutal and surreal, Himes may have said, than the situation of being black — even of being a prominent black writer — in mid-20th century America.

A year-long getaway to a Greek island; a week by the sea at an arts colony. Fantasies of escape are the common premise of two new comic novels, both smart and sprightly in style, and both informed by a sad wisdom that echoes John Milton's lines in Paradise Lost: that we carry "troubl'd thoughts" and "hell within [us]`" wherever we go.

Ever since Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Native Americans, New York City's character has been defined by money and con artistry. So it is that classic New York stories are always populated by a grifter or two.

The title of Maile Meloy's new novel is misleading: Do Not Become Alarmed sounds like a suspense story. Granted, I did read it in two nights; but, while I'm a unapologetic fan of thrillers, Meloy's novel is something else, something trickier to characterize. I'd call it a very smart work of literary fiction that exposes how very thin the layer of good luck is that keeps most of us from falling into the abyss.

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