African-American women writers - most notably Alice Walker and Toni Morrison - have long held prominent places in contemporary American fiction. Endorsed by mainstream feminism, their well-deserved critical success has fueled a corresponding popular success.
By contrast, with the passing of James Baldwin, their male counterparts dangle in relative anonymity. But three new books - two novels and a collection of short stories - may rearouse public attention. Each is wrenchingly intelligent and doggedly humane. And their scopes are ambitious: respectively, the fate of the planet, the struggle for mental territory in the war between black cultures, and the fortunes of people trying to get past ``Hello'' in the quest for intimacy.
Percival Everett's ``Zulus'' (Permanent Press, $19.95) is a post-apocalyptic urban folk tale that plays out the sorry future of the planet. The world after nuclear war is an eternally late November, where female sterilization is compulsory and city dwellers attend to make-work jobs and go home to suppers of cheese, crackers and hot chocolate, with nothing to hope for but the illegal - forbidden - fruit sold by those known as ``rebels.''
The heroine, Alice Achitophel, an obese young woman who threw away the sterilization order when it came in the mail, finds unexpected release from this deathly drabness when she is raped and impregnated. She flees the city to a rebel camp, where she is imprisoned so that the
rebels can seize her child. In her desperation to escape, she is nothing less than reborn - breaking open like a giant egg to release a new Alice Achitophel, a slender and beautiful Alice who may also be pregnant.
But Alice's hopes for a second chance, for renewal, are continually dashed, only to be raised and then dashed again. The meaning of the title, ``Zulus,'' emerges with her queasy awareness that the only way left to revere life is to end its post-war parody.
In ``I Get on the Bus'' (Little, Brown, $17.95), Reginald McKnight stages a hellish and mysterious war of cultures between black America and black Africa. The battleground is the mind of a young, well-educated man named Evan Norris, who joins the Peace Corps for no particular reason and lands in Senegal. There he comes to realize that he is spiritually unequal to his heritage, and therefore without a culture, a home.
As sufferings from malaria and racial guilt overwhelm him, a bus materializes from his hallucinations to take him away, and he gets on. After one of these nightmare bus trips, Evan finds himself among the family of a ``marabou'' - a witch doctor - where it slowly dawns on him that the minds and sensations of others are seeping into his body and occupying it. We finally learn, as Evan cannot, that without the individual soul that is a culture's gift, there soon is nothing left to call a self.
The stories in John Holman's ``Squabble'' (Ticknor & Fields, $18.95), though they do not startle and horrify the way ``Zulus'' and ``I Get on the Bus'' do, linger still in the same way - like the aftereffects of a fever, or a kiss. Holman writes brilliantly about the thwarting of intimacy, how it dissipates like perfume in the wind.
But he doesn't stop there; instead, he shows how the resulting loneliness can bring courage, renewed energy and hope. In ``On Earth,'' a 19-year-old's fruitless infatuation with a young single mother is transformed into an oddly satisfying bond with her son, her father and her ex-husband. In ``Pimp,'' a young woman replaces an attraction for an ex-pimp with a sense of her own personal strength.
What the characters in ``Zulus,'' ``I Get on the Bus,'' and ``Squabble'' have in common is a heroic refusal to consider themselves victims.
Anthony Flinn, a Seattle technical writer, recently received his doctorate in 20th-century English literature from the University of Washington.