Face The Nation 

Plus: Ishiguro's cloned kids; Dickey's sexy latest.

here's the joke: "If it's bad for the country, it's good for The Nation."

The country is the U.S.A., and The Nation is the journal of leftist opinion that's been a weekly publication since 1865. A profitable journal? Yes and no. Yes, if you count the three out of its 140 years that The Nation did better than break even. (Which three? No one seems to know.) No, if you count the magazine's other 137 years, influential but in the red.

Leave it to perpetual sourpuss and Nation contributor Calvin Trillin to put it this way: "I would describe [The Nation] as a pinko magazine printed on very cheap paper. It's probably the only magazine in the country if you make a Xerox of it, the Xerox looks a lot better than the original."

So what. The Nation survives -- despite its stock, despite its spotty advertising -- because there's no time like the present, which happens to be bad for the country. And guess what. Nation subscriptions are up! Victor Navasky says so. He's the publisher. He used to be the editor. He writes about it in A Matter of Opinion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a look back on his life, our nation, and The Nation, and you needn't be a journalism junkie to learn a thing or two -- make that a hell of a lot -- about the glories and pitfalls of magazine publishing and the freedom of the press. Or maybe not so free, to judge from Navasky's fight over the years for his and your constitutional rights. The book is anything but hard-going, but it does raise hard issues. It does so using a conversational tone and, more often than not, great humor. It had have my undivided attention for 400-plus pages.

We're in England, the late '90s, And something weird's at work at Hailsham, the boarding school that's been home to a group of students, including Kathy H. and Tommy D. The teachers are generous, but the students refer to them as guardians. There's also talk of "donors" and "carers," of "possibles" and "completions." There's a rumored gallery of student artwork to be used as "evidence" and another rumor about temporary "deferrals."

Students receive weekly physicals, but by all appearances, they're your normal run of teenagers. They have their studies. They have their sports. They have their circles of friends. And they have their hormones. So they have sex, which is casual, because both girls and boys understand that they cannot have children.

The students appear to be orphans. But that presupposes they had parents. What they had instead were "models," and it in no way spoils Kazuo Ishiguro's newest novel, Never Let Me Go (Knopf), to report that these kids are clones and that their mission in adult life is to donate their organs to those in need "out there." After four donations, they "complete." Do they freely accept an early death? Are they mourned? Do they have capacities that we would recognize as fully human? Those are good questions. Souls? That's the ultimate question.

Ishiguro measures out this tale in small increments, the lives (and inner lives) of Kathy, Tommy, and their best friend (and sometime nemesis) Ruth described to a degree that can be slow-going and of questionable purpose. No denying, however, that Never Let Me Go will have a creeping, creepy effect on patient readers. But beware: You want science fiction? Look elsewhere.

Native Memphian Eric Jerome Dickey's Genevieve (Dutton) is about a hotshot business consultant in L.A. married to a hotshot medical researcher. They live the very good life in California; she lived a pretty bad life growing up in Alabama. When her wicked grandmother dies, Genevieve travels home for the funeral, but her husband lands straight in the arms of her sexy sister. Or is she Genevieve's sister? (No question about the sexy.)

This makes Dickey's 11th novel in nine years. He's a regular headliner on best-seller lists, and here's why: His depictions of contemporary, urban African-American life at its glitzed-out best make for irresistible page-turners. (The graphic sex scenes don't hurt either.) Beneath the glitz, however: plenty of raw feelings in the battle between the sexes. Genevieve delivers both: the high life and the lowdown.

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