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I'M GONE

by Jean Echenoz, translated by Mark Polizzotti (The New Press; $22.95)

In America we like our tales of robbery brimming with blood and gore, zinging bullets and extravagant amounts of cash. In his mesmerizing fifth novel, I'm Gone, French author Jean Echenoz eschews sensationalism, and instead refracts the tale of an art theft to reflect on the existential malaise of his cast. Set in present-day Paris, the novel revolves around Ferrer, a failing dealer who specializes in modern art, and Baumgartner, a mysterious smuggler determined to steal Ferrer's latest treasure. Cutting cinematically between these two men, Echenoz captures the texture and rhythms of the art world, where commerce easily shades into crime, and where culture is a metaphor for the emptiness of the human heart.

Elegantly translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, I'm Gone deftly evokes the chilly distance both men maintain from their daily lives. As the novel opens, Ferrer embarks on a quest to the Arctic Circle, where a ship carrying several chests of native art has allegedly been stranded in the ice for more than 40 years. Trekking across the tundra with two guides and a team of sled dogs, Ferrer ignores other facets of his life: his broken marriage, his family (that "distant archipelago"), or his potentially lethal heart condition. For a man risking his life, Ferrer is preternaturally calm as he prepares to pillage. Even after he retrieves the art and returns to Paris, Ferrer's soul remains as frozen as the wrecked ship.

Meanwhile, Baumgartner maneuvers to unburden Ferrer of this bounty. He enlists a drug addict named The Flounder to pull off the job and rents a refrigerated delivery van to transport the fragile pieces. With his plan in place, Baumgartner leaves the city to erase any trace of himself. He travels from one hotel to the next, shedding his true identity for another: Echenoz suggests that the self is, at best, a transferable commodity like art. As with Ferrer, Baumgartner is detached; he neglects to think of the money at stake or the wife he has left behind. And when he doubles back to Paris on the day of the robbery, he preens about the city, a new man in tailored clothes, yet as hollow as before.

Swiftly plotted and noirishly spare, I'm Gone moves briskly toward its climax, skillfully building tension and suspense. When the theft occurs, Echenoz throws a twist into the plot that will catch even the most astute reader off-guard. While this novel offers the surface pleasures of an adventure story, the reader will ultimately remember its subtler and darker insights. Like Michael Mann's film, Heat, it presents a vision of crime that is stripped-down, mundane and unromantic. Its perpetrators and victims have nothing to lose but themselves. Already "gone," however, they could not care less about that.

SANS MOI

by Marie Desplechin, translated by Will Hobson (St. Martins Press, $22.95)

"There's nothing more desolate than hating love," writes the narrator of Sans Moi, a domestic novel of two young Parisian women scraping by in the big city.

She should know. First-time novelist Marie Desplechin's narrator is a freelance copywriter who falls for a wild thing named Olivia, a former crackhead and casualty of the self-esteem wars who also happens to baby-sit the narrator's two children. Despite Olivia's substance problems and unstable personality, Mom and kids grow attached to her dysfunctional cheer.

Separated from the children's father, the narrator has her own relapses, too. She's hooked on a bad boyfriend who won't love her, or leave her either. Her desperate, cluttered life is brightened by her increasing intimacy with Olivia, a Mary Poppins on Paxil struggling to be worthy of the devotion.

Author Desplechin, in typical French fashion, makes the emotions in Sans Moi explicit, laying them out on the table between the cigarettes and the wine. Considered in English, the novel's title, Without Me, puts a happy face on co-dependence, recording the bond between characters learning to love and be loved, one day at a time.

The fondness Marie Desplechin feels for her forlorn characters guarantees that things work out in the end, and that hearts are saved. The women find maturity and get their lives back on track, leaving Sans Moi, a sweet souvenir of the relationship.

DIRTY HAVANA TRILOGY:

A Novel in Stories by Pedro Juan Gutierrez, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25)

Dirty Havana Trilogy is a message from a dying society _ Cuba circa 1994 _ told by a man training himself to take nothing seriously in an unsound and impractical world. In harshly lit vignettes full of brutality, casual sex and longing, Gutierrez's eponymous narrator relates his struggle to free his soul from government, society, family and any other power structure that threatens to tie him down. Trouble is, he generally likes people, especially women.

Every character he meets in his wanderings is in a holding pattern, wary of both the revolution and dissent and bound together by a lack of food, water and living space. Unlike fellow Cuban Reinaldo Arenas, whose disillusionment with Castro resulted in operatic arias of prose, Gutierrez's narrator is more hard-boiled, circling the drain while his world rots and believing that all you need to get by is a bottle of rum and a little conversation with a woman, or God, or a friend.

Pedro Juan Gutierrez writes with the grace of the gutter, chronicling Cuban lives crazed by poverty. While never gathering much narrative drive, as a sex tour of Havana, and a snapshot of Caribbean communism in its last gasps, the novel achieves a sputtering brilliance. Dirty Havana Trilogy is not pretty, but it is literature at its most vital.

Philip Herter is a writer who lives in New York City.

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