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Book Report: Dive into organized crime, escape with a chess champ, play in the mud this week

Years ago, James T. Farrell made news with his "Studs Lonigan Trilogy," which was the darling of us teenage readers, because even though the book was many years old, it was dirty.

Well, dirty back then; not too dirty now.

Farrell portrayed the underbelly of lower middle class Chicago in all its Irishness. It has been years since I read "The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan," but I'll never forget the memorable scene in which he's inducted into the Knights of Columbus or the dime-a-dance scenes.

Farrell's gritty books found many imitators as late as the 1950s, including Willard Motley's "Knock on Any Door."

Just when you think such novels are, regrettably, a thing of the past, along comes Matt Burgess, a New Yorker who holds an MFA from University of Minnesota's writers program. It's "Dogfight, A Love Story" (Doubleday, $24.95). Burgess sets his first novel in his native Queens, a roil of different nationalities, of crime, and all manner of violence.

Burgess ramps up the Farrell/Motley continuum with 21st century additions. His hero is Alfredo Batista, a small-time drug dealer whose girlfriend is pregnant and whose neighborhood thinks Alfredo put the finger on his own brother, Tariq, who is about ready to be released from prison.

To make matters worse, the drug dealing business is as depressed as is the economy, so Alfredo and his Haitian partner Winston get involved with the local Russian mafia -- not too smart.

Burgess treats all these problems in the neighborhood deftly and with humor. His dialog is spot on and his first work is a credit to the creative writing program at Minnesota.


Chess enthusiasts will doubtlessly enjoy a new biography of Bobby Fischer, "Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall -- From America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness" (Crown, $25.99), by Frank Brady, a biographer and the founding editor of Chess Life magazine. Brady takes Fischer from his humble beginnings in a home for indigents to the New York City Hall steps, where Mayor John Lindsay congratulated him for his international victories.

What happened to Fischer, who died bearded and disheveled, a citizen of Iceland? Why did he turn down multi-million dollar matches? Why did he continually court disaster and arrest?

Brady who knew Fischer since he was a child, examines the content of the chess player's character.


What kid doesn't like to play in the mud?

To that end CarolRhoda books of Minneapolis has just published a very muddy and very beautiful picture book for ages 5 to 8. It's "Mudkin" ($16.95), by the talented Minneapolis artist and Caldecott Award winner ("Song and Dance Man") Stephen Gammel.

The new book tells the story of a little girl who goes out to play and meets the Mudkin (a blob of mud), who treats her like a queen. The drawings are enchanting. The text stretches the brain, because when the little girl talks, she speaks in English. When the Mudkin replies, he speaks in smears of mud.


All manner of children's books roll off the presses from CarolRhoda and other Lerner Publication imprints. Among its March publications are "A Land of Big Dreamers," by Neil Waldman (Millbrook, $16.95), which includes profiles of a wide variety of Americans, from George Washington to Frederick Douglass to Abe Lincoln to Emma Lazarus to Rachel Carson to Cesar Chavez to Rosa Parks and Barack Obama.

Lerner publishes books for adolescents that deal with social problems. Its Millbrook imprint has a series entitled "Surviving Southside," six books set in an inner city high school.

The March entry is "Plan B," by Sharwan Simon (($7.95 paper). Lucy seems a well-adjusted kid who has plans to become a Spanish teacher. She wants to marry Southside's star pitcher Luke and settle down, but only after college. One night they have sex. Sure enough, she's pregnant. They'll have to turn to plan B.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.