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Short Takes

Vie Française
By Jean-Paul Dubois
Translated, from the French, by Linda Coverdale
Knopf, 276 pp., $24.95

This powerful novel of growing up and growing older in suburban France has the feel and sweep of John Updike's Rabbit books. It begins with exuberance, humor, and high spirits, then slowly descends into melancholy, sorrow, and disappointment .

Organized in political time blocks beginning with Charles de Gaulle, 1958-69, and ending with Jacques Chirac ("May 5, 2002--?"), the story follows its young hero as he emerges from his parents' mournful gloom, discovers thrilling gymnastic sex, and forms his radical social consciousness during the student uprisings of '68. He marries a beautiful woman who turns into a driven business executive. He is briefly in fashion and in the money as a nature photographer. At 38, "I was living among my trees. My children didn't trust me. My mother-in-law had a lover. My mother had voted for a bourgeois in Socialist's clothing. My wife was preparing to put dozens of people out of work. " From here, things go downhill. In September 2001 he thinks, "What is true of the destiny of men holds for the fate of nations." From his passive life, he arrives at this conclusion: "Life, I knew, was nothing more than an illusory strand connecting us to others and leading us to believe, for a brief time we find meaningful, that we are something after all, and not just nothing." Dubois nimbly encourages a reader to identify with his French Everyman, and at the same time invites criticism of his hapless hero.

The Collected Stories
By Leonard Michaels
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 403 pp., $26

This volume contains Leonard Michaels's stories from the 1969 "Going Places" and four subsequent collections, plus the final, uncollected stories. The early stories, many featuring Philip, a hungry young New York Jewish writer, are fierce and funny; the later ones, about Nachman, an aging, brooding California mathematician, approach mellow. Never are the stories muted or mild. Michaels, it seems, never wrote a boring sentence.

An example of his skill: "Making Changes," from "Going Places," starts at a party where Philip searches for his girlfriend. "The hall was clogged with bodies; none of them hers, but who could be sure? . . . Conversation was impossible. People had to lean close and shriek. It killed the effect of wit, looking into nostrils, shrieking, 'What? What?' "

Nachman, the dreamy mathematics professor, "a drifty man who walks about with his fly unzipped" who is "constitutionally incapable of taking a vacation," observes his best friend's wife kissing another man in "Of Mystery There Is No End." Should he tell his friend? "In the twenty-first century, in Los Angeles, a great city of cars where no conceivable depravity wasn't already boring to high school kids, Nachman, a grown man, found himself agonized by an ancient moral dilemma."

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.