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Book reviews: The Truth and Elsewhere 

Michael Palin and Richard Russo pen new novels

In 1995, former Monty Python mainstay Michael Palin wrote a novel, Hemingway's Chair. Almost two decades later, after detouring through a slew of BBC TV travel series, he's written a second fictional work. The Truth was worth the wait.

Palin's protagonist, Keith Mabbut, a journalist who was once briefly famous for his environmental reporting, is given a chance to redeem his career and produce a book about Hamish Melville, a famous corporation-fighting activist who has saved precious wilderness land and indigenous populations from rapacious companies. One problem: Melville refuses to do interviews, write books or put up a website. Mabbut travels to India to find Melville, an endeavor that becomes the central story of The Truth. Along the way, he finds out more and more about Melville and, although excited and nearly worshipful of his subject, things — trying not to give away too much here — don't exactly turn out to be what they seem. And neither does Mabbut's assignment, nor his hoped-for redemption.

Palin's plotting is inspired, the writing is crisp, and the unexpected twists of the story are eye-opening and often hilarious. What starts as a book about a schlumpy hack writer looking to save himself turns into a layered, empathetic look at progress, hero worship and the slipperiness of truth and lies themselves.

Richard Russo, author of bestselling novels like Empire Falls and Nobody's Fool, is one hell of a nice guy. That is, he's patient and understanding, at least if his memoir Elsewhere (out in paperback) is even half-true. There's no reason to believe it's not all true, of course, even though his mom, Jean — the real star of Elsewhere — was, as my own mother used to call difficult people, "a real pill" who could try the patience of a saint. Jean craved a life outside small-town America — somewhere she could unleash her creativity — but that craving left her unfulfilled, unsettled, self-punishing and, in the parlance of the 1950s, burdened with a "nervous personality." She ached to experience life at its fullest but, because of economic and social circumstances, was stuck for too long having to live, along with son Richard, in her parents' home in upstate New York. Russo tells much of his narrative of growing up largely through the story of his mother's restless mind and impulsive actions. It's at times painfully uncomfortable and at others delightful in its celebration of personal eccentricities.

When Russo was accepted by the University of Arizona in 1967, Jean drove to Tucson with him in an old car he called "the Gray Death." Their harrowing, cross-country odyssey is a central part of the book, and a springboard for Russo's deepest insights into his mother's being — her stubborn determination, oddly mixed with her frightening, heartbreaking insecurities and her unbroken love for her son. That son, of course, became famous and rich from his novels and the movies made of them. Jean had a few good years in Arizona, but soon her fears took over once more, and she followed Richard and his infinitely patient wife from one part of the country to another. Russo's prose is understated, never sentimental (a real accomplishment considering the story he tells), never in search of a "final pronouncement" to wrap a complicated, knotty situation up neatly. Instead, he focuses on his and Jean's story, revealing a profound understanding of human connections and their effects on those who share them.

Upcoming: Guests On Earth by Lee Smith (Oct. 15 sale date). The author of such classics as Oral History, The Devil's Dance and The Last Girls takes on insanity, its treatment, the arts and female creativity in a historical novel based on Zelda Fitzgerald's stays at Highland Hospital in Asheville in the 1930s and 1940s. Booklist says Guests On Earth is "impeccably researched" and "reveals the early 20th century's antedeluvian attitudes toward mental health and women's independence."

The Truth

by Michael Palin

(Thomas Dunne Books, 272 pages, $24.99)

Elsewhere

by Richard Russo

(Vintage Paperback, 246 pages, $15)

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