BOOKS . . . KOWLOON TONG: On June 30 Britain will end its long-term ownership and control of Hong Kong and hand over the colony to the People’s Republic of China. Hot off the presses, Paul Theroux’s “Kowloon Tong” (Houghton Mifflin; 243 pages; $23) offers Theroux’s imaginative version of how some Hong Kong residents have fared -- and will fare -- in the face of such a monumental and imminent change, writes TIME Literary Critic Paul Gray. Neville Mullard, 43, lives with his widowed mother Betty in a Hong Kong house called, in honor of their native land, Albion Cottage. The late George Mullard left his wife and son, nicknamed Bunt, half-ownership of Imperial Stitching, a garment-manufacturing firm located in an eight-story building in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Tong district. The unexpected death, in early 1996, of Mr. Chuck, the refugee from China who co-founded and owns the other half of Imperial Stitching, leaves the whole shebang to the Mullards, mother and son. Their pleasure in assuming full control is dampened somewhat by the prospect of the upcoming change in Hong Kong, which worried folks around town call “the Chinese take-away.” Sure enough, Bunt is soon approached by a Mr. Hung, quite evidently from the mainland, who says he wants to buy the Imperial Stitching building. Bunt’s mother wants to sell -- Hung’s offer will bring them roughly £1 million, or $1.6 million -- and when her son objects to Hung’s strong-arm negotiations, she says, “Oh, pack it in! I could do business with that man.” This paraphrase of Margaret Thatcher’s comment after meeting Mikhail Gorbachev pretty much tips Theroux’s hand in “Kowloon Tong.” He is aiming at broad political satire, and nearly any target will do. Both the Mullards are contemptible. Hung, the avatar of the new Hong Kong order, is a brute . . . and may be guilty of murdering one of Imperial Stitching’s working women. Readers who like to take sides will not find palatable choices in “Kowloon Tong.” Theroux’s distaste for everyone involved in his tale registers clearly and often brilliantly. But it seems reasonable to hope that his vision of the near future is unduly dyspeptic, and that fiction will be stranger than truth.
BOOKS . . . NEWS OF A KIDNAPPING: The imps of literary happenstance could not have done better than “News of a Kidnapping” (Knopf; 291 pages; $25), writes TIME Critic R.Z. Sheppard. It brings together the world’s two best-known Colombians, symbolically locked in a struggle for their nation’s soul. The first is the book’s author, Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel prizewinner and one of the greatest living storytellers. The other is the late Pablo Escobar, once head of the Medellín drug cartel and a terrorist responsible for hundreds of violent deaths. These two men, who achieved international fame and fortune peddling their respective though vastly different habit-forming products, seem to have been destined for a literary rendezvous. One can almost hear García Márquez asking, Who? What? Where? When? and Why? on every minutely detailed page of this factual account of political kidnappings orchestrated by Escobar. The writer’s respondents are mainly the survivors of a group of prominent residents of Bogotá whom the drug lord held hostage during 1990 and 1991. Most of the hostages were women, including Diana Turbay Quintero, daughter of a former Colombian President. A TV journalist, she imprudently walked into an Escobar trap, taking a film crew with her. By now the world is well acquainted with hostage holding as a grotesque basis for personal relationships. But here the unusual experience of living in close quarters with your potential killers is intensified in prose as precise and deadpan as a coroner’s report. And as he has done so often, García Márquez makes the fantastic seem ordinary. At one point Marina Montoya asks her cold-blooded keepers to kneel with her and pray. They do, each to the same God for the same reasons: to protect their lives and deliver them from evil. It is a classic García Márquez instance -- comic, tragic and all too human.
BOOKS . . . RAGE FOR FAME: THE ASCENT OF CLARE BOOTHE LUCE: She may be only one of history’s footnotes now, but in her heyday Clare Boothe Luce was, after Eleanor Roosevelt, the most talked-about woman in America. TIME Critic John Elson writes that Boothe seemingly had it all: she was a headlining journalist (for Life and the original Vanity Fair); a successful playwright (“The Women”); a two-term Congresswoman from Connecticut; and later U.S. ambassador to Italy. She had a merciless wit and stunning looks to go with her smarts. Drawing on interviews with family, friends and Luce herself, as well as her papers in the Library of Congress, “Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce” by Sylvia Jukes Morris (Random House; 562 pages; $30) is the first part of what will almost certainly be the definitive biography of Luce. Despite her lady-of-the-manor ways, Luce’s beginnings were anything but grand. She was born in Manhattan in 1903, the illegitimate daughter of William Franklin Boothe, an itinerant salesman and would-be concert violinist. Clare and her older brother David were raised by their mother Anna, who, Morris tells us, supported them by part-time work as a call girl and believed that Clare’s surest way to escape from poverty was by marrying money. She found work with the publisher Condé Nast, initially at Vogue but more brilliantly at Vanity Fair, where she became managing editor. One of her first contributions to the magazine was a flip little profile of Time’s co-founder Henry R. Luce. They married in 1935. His magazines prospered, including Life, which she virtually invented, but, to her bitter disappointment, was not allowed to edit. And despite mixed reviews, her plays were popular successes. But as “Rage for Fame” ends, with Clare’s election to Congress in 1942, the Luces are visibly at odds -- and clearly not for the last time. Morris struggles for fairness but portrays Luce as a calculating, self-indulgent user whose fixed eye on the main chance rendered her oblivious to the concerns of others. Considering the trials that lay ahead for Luce, it’s a safe bet that Morris’ second volume will be just as compelling as the first.
MUSIC . . . DOC CHEATHAM & NICHOLAS PAYTON: It’s the jazz equivalent of stunt casting: Verve has just released an album that teams Nicholas Payton, a 23-year-old Wynton Marsalis protégé, with Doc Cheatham, a slightly older trumpet player, one who cut his teeth with the likes of Ma Rainey and Cab Calloway. Doc ’s 91. The tunes here, writes TIME’s Bruce Handy, are standards, many of them -- like Black and Blue -- part of Louis Armstrong’s repertoire; all are played in a straight-ahead New Orleans style. But one’s suspicion that the result might be dutiful and dull, the musical equivalent of a five-part series in the New York Times on wage stagnation, proves groundless. “Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton” rescues its idiom from both the dead end of strict revivalism and the cornier precincts of Dixieland, reinvesting it with swing and individuality and reminding us why this sensual, pleasurable music was once called “hot.” What we have here, believe it or not, is 62 minutes of great make-out music. What a nice change of pace it is to hear two trumpets playing together in a small-group context. They share lovers’ murmurs here, a joke there, sometimes joining for a ripe, plangent phrase. The nonagenarian demonstrates lungs, the whippersnapper sly wit (and an occasional bent for theatrics); both have a sweetly teasing way with a melody. Cheatham’s talk-singing on 10 of the 14 tunes may be an acquired taste. On the continuum of singing horn players, he’s probably closer to Dizzy Gillespie than to Armstrong, but listeners with generous ears will be charmed.