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Book Review : This Slothful Novel Gives a Nod to Huckleberry Finn

May 29, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

An Embarrassment of Riches by James Howard Kunstler (The Dial Press, $15.95)

James Howard Kunstler's mock-picaresque tale is not really a good book but it is a reasonably good read. The difference between a good read and a good book is that the former stops dead the moment you lift your eye from the page, and the latter goes right on.

The difference between a good read and a reasonably good read is that the former makes enough happen so that we turn the pages quite regularly. With "An Embarrassment of Riches," it is sometimes necessary to turn the pages so that something will happen, or so that something that has gone on long enough will stop happening.

Not long after the book gets under way, Samuel Walker and his Uncle William, keelboating down the Ohio on a mission for Thomas Jefferson, are seized by a rumbustious villain named Melancthon Bilbo, assisted by his faithful barking dwarf and his hare-lipped daughter.

Tall-Taling by Bilbo

The captivity goes on for quite a few hundred miles of fishing, hunting, poling, Indian attacks, sexual industriousness on the part of the daughter and tall-taling on the part of Bilbo. It is rather fun for a while, and then you begin to hope for the heroes' escape; not so much out of concern for them as because the Bilbo party has distinctly begun to poop.

Kunstler's nicely droll notion is to have President Jefferson dispatch his friend Uncle William, a Quaker farmer who is also a renowned botanist, in search of the megatherium or giant sloth. Jefferson, an amusing mixture of pomposity and deviousness, has been stung by the assertion of the French naturalist Buffon that there were no really large animals in North America.

Equipped with $100 and a presidential warrant, Uncle William enlists Samuel, who paints miniatures, and the two of them acquire a keelboat in Pittsburgh and set off down river. Judging from reports of fossil finds, they estimate that megatherium may be found nibbling trees somewhere between the Ohio and the Gulf of Mexico.

William, who looks like Benjamin Franklin, is a mixture of the practical and unworldly. He is more interested in plans than in megatherium, and throughout the expedition's spectacular misadventures, he is always at his specimen jars. Samuel, the narrator, is mainly interested in adventure. He is pushy, tart-tongued and, on the whole, rather likable.

The Fountain of Life

After the Walkers are captured by Bilbo, they convince him that there is a fortune to be made bottling and selling the Fountain of Life, whose location Samuel claims to know. En route, they are captured by Indians who prepare to torture them to death. They are rescued by a magical figure who calls himself the Deerslayer, and who is one of a number of Kunstler's literary borrowings and salutations.

The days on the river are a nod to Huck Finn. Bilbo is Duke and Dauphin all in one.

Down on the Tennessee, the Walkers are taken in by a mysterious Frenchman who has built a Versailles-like palace on an enormous raft, and uses Indians to oversee a plantation full of black slaves. The Frenchman is delighted to have an American savant as his guest, and his wife is equally, though differently, delighted with Samuel. The lavish hospitality ends when the slaves revolt, butcher the Frenchman, and burn down the palace. The heroes escape, taking with them a seemingly retarded young man whom the Frenchman claims is his ward but who turns out to be altogether grander and more mysterious.

The adventures continue with a discovery of the descendants of Roanoke's Lost Colony, and a bloody fight with the Spanish navy. William and Samuel even sight the megatherium but are too busy to do much about it.

Kunstler accomplishes a certain suspense with the mystery of Versailles-on-the-Tennessee and its young prisoner. William and Samuel are engaging, each in their own way, but after a while their exploits become more strenuous than ingenious. The author adorns his sloth hunt with a variety of plot twists but the people that inhabit them have little more than a quirk or two each to identify them.

There is some good river description. I liked "dawn spread like an ague." There is humor, both forced and unforced. There is also a touch of nastiness in the account of Bilbo's deformed and sex-mad daughter, and in some of the killings and mutilations.

The book covers a lot of ground, or river, and tends rather to shove the adventurers through their adventures; and paradoxically this makes them drag. The hastiness extends elsewhere. I strongly doubt that Quakers ever used such a construction as: "Hath thee a nib, ink and paper?" Kunstler doesn't seem sure either, since he follows this with: "What dost thee think?" His spelling of Melancthon is idiosyncratic, at least, and his rendering of Spanish phrases is barbarous.

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