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Book Report: Minnesota writers shine bright

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"Thirty Rooms to Hide In," by Luke Longstreet Sullivan (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95) has a subtitle that sort of grabs you: "Insanity, Addiction, and Rock 'n' Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic."

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Who's insane at the Mayo Clinic? And who's addicted?

That would be a prestigious Mayo orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Roger Sullivan.

As for rock 'n' roll, that would be the surgeon's older children that play in a rock group around southeastern Minnesota. They all live together in a 30-room mansion called "Millstone" on an estate in Rochester with a long-suffering wife and mother.

Why do Luke Sullivan and his many brothers hide in rooms at the mansion? Because their father is crazy and when he gets drunk, which is usually, he comes home from the operating room and abuses them verbally and physically for years. Here's a guy who is talented, handsome and the world is his oyster.

He also has a streak of insecurity that would make Walter Mitty seem like Jesse Ventura. And he takes it out on the kids and his wife and possibly even his patients.

This beautifully written book by the youngest son, now a professor in Georgia, is not all sad.

Whenever the doctor is at the clinic the kids do their best to drive their mother crazy in the big mansion, which doubles as a lunatic asylum, but in a good way. Sort of.

The kids cook up fearsome pranks to visit on the neighbor kids and on each other. If their father knew about this he'd have been drummed out of the medical profession not for malpractice but for murdering his kids.

His youngest has a real talent for working in great background details of life in the 1950s and 1960s in Rochester. There's even a reference to my favorite name for a motel: "Clinic View."

In the end, with Dr. Sullivan dead under mysterious circumstances, the reader senses a great feeling of relief as the survivors are forced to leave the mansion to a humbler residence and a saner life.

Nevertheless, the memories of what could have been without the dreadful spectra of alcoholism linger on, the intelligent, kindly wife wondering if she should have taken the kids and gone home to her fine parents, the author admitting that he, too, is an alcoholic.

Let's make this last column for the year an all-Minnesota rundown.

Last month I mentioned the University of Minnesota Press's Fesler series, which republishes classics with a Minnesota background, including a great biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

No sooner had that column appeared than I received another Fesler-sponsored book from Minnesota, "The Disenchanted," by Budd Schulberg ($18.95 paper).

Schulberg, author of "What Makes Sammy Run?" and the screenplay of "On the Waterfront" had Hollywood connections as a young man and in 1939 got a job to accompany F. Scott Fitzgerald who was assigned to write a screenplay about the Dartmouth College Winter Carnival.

His job was to help Fitzgerald keep sober. That didn't work.

Ever the writer, Schulberg decided to make applesauce out of sour apples and write a novel based on his experience.

So Fitzgerald becomes Manley Halliday, a once-famous novelist on the skids and Schulberg becomes Shep, a young writer who idolizes Halliday.

On a trip with Shep to New York Halliday has a few drinks on the plane and the rest is the stuff of which novels are made.

One more: "For a week the sodden skies have hung over the farmland, unloading periodic showers without moving on, and he tenses against the sight of a cocoa-colored torrent flecked with foam.

"But the water is dark, a gunmetal reflection of the skies. Though a harrowing west wind rakes the stream's surface, his hands relax on the steering wheel. He'll be able to fish."

That's from "Sunlit Riffles and Shadowed Runs" (Terrace Books, $19.95, cloth), by southeastern Minnesotan Kent Cowgill.

It's the perfect book for anglers with a taste for fiction and who can't wait for next spring's trout-fishing opener.

It's not a book about tying flies or perspectives on angling.

It's just several short stories with trout fishing as its setting. Some are hilarious, some are suspenseful as Cowgill takes readers from the Black Hills to the Brule River in Wisconsin, where trout fisherpersons from all walks of life -- college professors, old Norwegians, et al. ply their hobby.

I haven't read Cowgill since he wrote a hilarious send-up of "The Canterbury Tales" years ago. He's still up to snuff and one heck of a prose writer.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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