BOOKS . . . DO THE WINDOWS OPEN? The juxtaposition of what should be done set against the difficulty of actually doing it underscores the comic principle that animates Julie Hecht's first collection of fiction (Random House; 212 pages; $21). Her narrator ought to be happy, or at least fulfilled. She and her architect husband have an apartment in Manhattan, a house in East Hampton and a summer rental on Nantucket. She can afford a small army of expensive people -- psychiatrists, opticians, periodontists, endodontists, exercise trainers, floor renovators -- to minister to her and her possessions’ needs. Yet in spite of all this -- or perhaps because of it -- she is a psychological wreck. But unlike so many contemporary fictional neurotics, she is not unpleasant to be around. She never wallows in self-pity; she wallows, instead, in deracinated compassion for everyone, including herself, who must cope with contemporary reality. Paradoxically, she dabbles earnestly in photography, recording those surfaces that bewilder her so. She dreams of taking a definitive picture of 'the world-renowned reproductive surgeon Dr. Arnold Loquesto, whom I'd consulted and photographed' posing with his dog. Why? Because, with such a picture, 'I would have the answer to the question of how to live in the world.' "Her repeated, obsessive references to her reproductive surgeon betray the narrator's deepest concern without, apparently, her being aware of the disclosure," says TIME's Paul Gray. "Whatever Dr. Loquesto was supposed to do for her somehow did not work, in a way she doesn't explain. She is 40 and childless, and Hecht has subtly grounded all these remarkably funny and engaging stories in the fundamental sadness of mortality."
BOOKS . . . ZEKE AND NED: Al Capp's long-gone hillbilly comic strip Li'l Abner wasn't elevated humor, but it was funny, and that's pretty much the case with 'Zeke and Ned' (Simon & Schuster; 478 pages; $25), by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. "Advocates for Native American rights will be flummoxed to learn that, as the authors tell it, Cherokees endured the Trail of Tears to the Indian Territory only to end up in Capp's Dogpatch," says TIME's John Skow. "McMurtry and Ossana set their story in the Cherokee town of Tahlequah, but it's Dogpatch, all right." Early in the novel the two Cherokee heroes, the legendary gunfighter Ned Christie and his pal Zeke Proctor, are drinking in Zeke's smokehouse as Ned nerves himself to propose marriage to Zeke’s daughter Jewel. Ned stands up too quickly and bumps into a freshly butchered pig. 'The sight of Ned smacking himself with a slab of shoat struck Zeke as hilarious . . . Zeke's funny bone was easily tickled, and when he had downed a quart or two of whiskey, he found plenty to laugh about.' Yee-haw. "If Noel Coward could have written such scenes," notes Skow, "he might have made something of himself."