cover image Underworld


Peter Conrad. Poseidon Press, $20.5 (252pp) ISBN 978-0-671-75884-4

The severed head of a murdered businessman, sealed in a plastic bag, serves as a football for rowdy youths of ``the valley.'' The valley, ``on the far side of the city,'' is society's rubbish dump, home to roving gangs, bag ladies, illegal aliens, refugees from the city and a boy named Wilf who protects himself against life with the stick he carries everywhere. A haunting parable of evil and social disintegration, this debut novel by cultural critic/historian Conrad ( Where I Fell to Earth ) moves from murder to mayhem as Paul, a visionary architect bent on redesigning the valley, and his lover, Kate, a painter who defends the valley culture, involve themselves with Wilf in ways that will transform all of them. On one level, Conrad's dense fantasy is a critique of senseless, random violence and our willingness to tolerate a permanent underclass. On another level it's a meditation on art as a ransacking of reality, on modern architecture's utter irrelevance and the hazards of faith and love. (May)