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BOOK REVIEW

A stylish trip back to Smallville

It’s Superman!, By Tom De Haven, Chronicle Books, 425 pp., $24.95

Nearly seven decades after Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel first introduced their caped superhero Superman, there's been a steady array of comic books, TV series, and films about the man imbued with extraordinary powers.

These days, ''Smallville," a WB drama that premiered in 2001, gives the story a contemporary twist with the Man of Steel trying to negotiate the foibles of young adulthood as well as his supernatural abilities. With a wink to that series's concept, Tom De Haven's giddy joyride of a novel, ''It's Superman!," returns the tale to its roots in 1930s America, with Clark Kent as an awkward high school kid in rural Kansas.

''Our version of the story," as De Haven puts it, begins with Clark trying to explain to a local sheriff how a wanted criminal fired his gun point-blank at Clark but somehow ended up dead when the bullet ricocheted. Even as Clark tells the officer he doesn't know what the bullet hit, there's a small red welt on his forehead where the projectile struck but could not penetrate. For as long as Clark can remember, such unexplained things have happened to him. He emerges from serious accidents unscathed, can set fires with a focused stare, and can even drive nails into a fence post with his fist.

Oh, and did we mention he can fly?

At the same time, Clark couldn't be more average, at least in the eyes of his unsuspecting classmates. ''At school, Clark is not actively disliked, he isn't unpopular, he's just . . . there. There-but-not-there," De Haven writes.

Here, De Haven evokes the notions of alienation so common in adolescence. Clark's abilities don't make him feel special, just different, and different is not what Clark wants to be. He's physically indestructible yet emotionally vulnerable.

While this is Clark's story, De Haven also has a ball with the evolution of two other characters writ large in Superman's world -- Lois Lane and Lex Luthor. They reside in a New York run by the beloved mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and it's a dazzling place of gin and jazz where Joseph P. Kennedy and Gloria Swanson canoodle, and newsman Walter Winchell and mobster Meyer Lansky are both feared and respected. Lois is a hard-charging aspiring journalist, Lex is a criminally ambitious alderman, and Clark, after a stint in Hollywood as a stunningly skilled stuntman, winds up in New York hopelessly smitten with Lois as he tries to clear a friend, who also happens to be Lois's ex-boyfriend, of murder charges.

De Haven lets it all unfold with melodramatic relish, reviving the pulp noir of vintage comic books and Saturday morning serials. There's a lot going on here -- murderous thugs, corrupt politicians, evil robots, plots for world domination -- as well as the quirky origins of such familiar items as Superman's red-and-blue costume. Yet De Haven doesn't ignore the era's very real tensions, such as the kind of violent racism that drives Clark to use his powers in anger against a pack of bigots.

Still, ''It's Superman!" isn't lacquered with social commentary. De Haven is more concerned with telling this unhurried yet breezy story that never sags, even at more than 400 pages. With cheeky aplomb, luscious period details, and a generous affection for his characters, De Haven accomplishes his own kind of superhuman feat -- he leaps above cliches in a single bound and fashions a stylish, rollicking good yarn from the legend of the Man of Steel.

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