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The Optimists
By Andrew Miller
Harcourt, 313 pp., $24

Sight and blindness, madness and sanity, engagement and withdrawal, the banality of evil: these large themes are explored on a deceptively small scale in this subtle, beautifully written novel by Andrew Miller.

The man in the eye of the existential storm is Clem Glass, a photojournalist haunted by the horror of a massacre into which he stumbled while on assignment in Africa. Back at home in London, he finds he cannot pick up the pieces of his life, cannot make himself whole. The victims he has witnessed, and photographed, are as invisible to the people around him as the demons tormenting his sister, Clare, who has had an even more dramatic mental breakdown. Walking wounded, the two retreat to the countryside of their childhood to recuperate. Then Clem receives news that sends him racing for the airport, postmodern man on a doomed quest for heroic vengeance.

It is difficult to do justice, in brief, to the expansive yet contained scope of the novel, its cascading tropes of madness and vision. One man, Clem ultimately discovers, can do little to heal an injured world. Miller's prose brings grace and lucidity to what is dark and baffling in Clem's predicament, the predicament of a caring man in an uncaring universe.

Welfare Brat
By Mary Childers
Bloomsbury, 263 pp., $23.95

Whatever preconceptions we may have about ''welfare moms" and their families, some will be challenged and some confirmed by this feisty autobiography.

Mary Childers was born the third of her mother, Sandy's, seven miscellaneous, mostly illegitimate children. Blowsy, boozy Sandy claimed that men were nothing but trouble, a self-fulfilling prophecy for her, and for her daughters, who absorbed that defeatist attitude at her knee. Sandy did her best to love her kids, feed them, keep a leaky roof over their heads; it's just that her best wasn't very good. As other working-class families joined the exodus to the suburbs, the Irish Catholic Childers clan was left uncomfortably behind in the increasingly nonwhite and dysfunctional Bronx.

Sandy tolerated just about anything from her girls except for ambition. In that regard, Mary was the family rebel. A self-taught respect for learning and hard work was her ticket out, as this spirited but rather artless memoir attests. To her credit as a daughter and sister, she tries to shield others while telling her own story. As a result, though, that story feels generic rather than specific, less nuanced than the whole truth usually is.

True Story
By Michael Finkel
HarperCollins, 312 pp., $25.95

On the day he was fired by The New York Times for fudging the facts of a major story he'd written, Michael Finkel received a gift from the gods who watch out for those who skate on thin ice. He learned that a fugitive named Christian Longo had just been returned to Oregon, where he was suspected of killing his wife and three small children. While on the run in Mexico, Longo had been passing himself off as a journalist -- as Michael Finkel of The New York Times. Finkel -- the real Finkel -- was back in business.

Through letters, phone calls, and jailhouse visits, he built a relationship with Longo, a personable sociopath, who agreed to let Finkel serve as his chronicler. A bizarre tale of personality disintegration unfolds, the melodrama of a respectable suburban minivan lifestyle sustained by forgery, larceny, and lies. Things fell apart. By the time Longo killed his family -- there seems little doubt of his guilt -- he'd convinced himself that he was dong this, too, for their sake.

Each man was using the other to get his story out: the disgraced journalist and the affable, upwardly mobile murderer. Finkel makes the most of his shot at redemption, crafting from Longo's manipulative confessions a compulsively readable amorality tale.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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