Fiction roundup: new novels by Kotlowitz, Gray, and Moore

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Sea Changes, by Robert Kotlowitz. San Francisco: North Point Press. 275 pp. $17.95. Cultural dislocation is so much a part of modern life that it may seem matter-of-fact even to those who undergo it. Yet it is also profoundly disturbing. ``Sea Changes,'' Robert Kotlowitz's third novel, does full justice to both sides of the paradox.

When Leopold Vogel's parents reach the difficult decision to send him away from Nazi Germany to the safety of America, the teen-aged boy gamely elects to change his name to Manfred, which he presumes to be more virile and ``American''-sounding.

Manfred's story is not only a rite of passage as he enters the adult world, but also a metamorphosis, in which he leaves his family, country, language, and way of life for a new life with the Gordon family in Baltimore.

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Irrevocable change is faced by Manfred with the optimism and resilience of youth. The pains of loss and displacement dwell quietly below the surface. In a series of quick, sharp glimpses below the cheerful surface of Manfred's exciting period of adjustment, Kotlowitz conveys the hidden pains of dislocation with subtlety and skill. Still more poignantly, he renders the contrast between the two lives - Frankfurt and Baltimore, Vogeles and Gordon - with utterly convincing fidelity to atmosphere and detail. Kotlowitz, a former editor of Harper's, now vice president of public television station WNET in New York, has published two earlier novels: ``Somewhere Else'' (1972) and ``The Boardwalk'' (1977). The Fall of Kelvin Walker: A Fable of the Sixties, by Alasdair Gray. New York: George Braziller. 144 pp. $14.95.

A wonderfully extravagant medley of modes - satire, myth, realism, and fantasy - Alasdair Gray's ``Lanark,'' first published in 1981, and reissued last year by Braziller, should have had a greater impact than it seems to have had. His ``Unlikely Stories, Mostly'' and his second novel, ``1982 Janine,'' again revealed his strong powers of invention, his humor, indignation, compassion, and common sense. Like the protagonists of Gray's previous novels and like Gray himself, the eponymous hero of this new novel is a Scot. His is the age-old story/fable of a young man from the provinces who tackles the big city. It is also a tale of the ``swinging'' '60s, that brief shining (some would say tinsel) moment when Britain emerged from its postwar drabness before being swallowed up by its current economic woes. Kelvin is the right person in the right place at the right time. Armed with a disarming blend of naivet'e and nerve, the ambitious, clever, hard-driving Scot succeeds overnight where his more knowledgeable, less desperate, English counterpart might have failed. Kelvin's knack for asking awkward questions earns him his own television interview show. In the end, however, he finds that sheer drive is no substitute for the quieter confidence that comes from savoir faire, complacency, and the plain comfort of being English. This is an engaging, if minor work, more limited in scope than Gray's previously published fiction, more, indeed, like a ``first novel,'' which I would not be altogether surprised to learn it was. Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore. New York: Knopf. 225 pp. $15.95

Lorrie Moore's first book, ``Self-Help,'' was a collection of stories. ``Anagrams,'' her second book, is billed as her first novel, but is also like a collection of stories - or comic improvisations - involving the same set of characters: a young woman, her boyfriend, girlfriend, and six-year-old daughter. The shifting, yet curiously static, relationships among these characters are, of course, the ``anagrams'' of the title.

There is also a good deal of wordplay with real anagrams, such as the almost clich'e twist of ``bedroom'' and ``boredom,'' but it's never a real story with real people. Moore's writing has freshness, wit, and vitality, but her characters (in any and all of their various incarnations) are finally less than the sum of all their clever conversations.

This is a slight work, possessed of a certain wry humor that charms us while reading, but seems to evaporate even as we turn the pages.

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