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Only the Dead Know Brooklyn by Thomas Boyle (Godine: $14.95; 283 pp.)

September 29, 1985|Paul Thomas Barber | Barber has taught comparative literature at Princeton University and Occidental College. and

Thomas Boyle's new book, his second novel, is much more engrossing than one might gather either from its title or from a plot summary. The title could easily be reversed--"Only the Living Know Brooklyn"--without anyone being the wiser. And the plot seems like fairly standard suspense when one simply recapitulates it. There is a group of crazies, a kind of minor-league SLA, led by a madman who, when he is not kidnaping professors of literature, drowns young women and keeps their bodies at hand until he has thought of something unusually bizarre and politically meaningful to do with them. The young man, Tyrone Ward, should perhaps not be judged too harshly, however, for he lives and has his being, after all, in a novel in which the closest thing to a healthy relationship is--cross my heart!--that between the head detective, Francis de Sales, nicknamed "The Saint," and the prostitute that he hires between chase scenes. As interesting a character as she is, one is mildly disappointed to discover that, like De Sales, she is a closet intellectual. She is, in fact, working on a degree from Hunter, and in the course of time, if she perseveres, she will presumably acquire the sexual hang-ups, guilt and frustration of the other intellectuals in the novel.

Boyle's real strength is in his view of Brooklyn, which is nostalgic (the villain wears a facsimile Brooklyn Dodgers jacket) and suggests a writer's notebook: "He remembered more churches, near the original site of Ebbets Field, now a black housing project. There was an Eglise de Dieu, a Gethsemane Pentecostal, a First Church of Latter Rain (with a note on the door: Cette eglise est temperament transfere a 1625 Albany Avenue)."

No one in the novel can get away from Brooklyn, even Tyrone Ward, who makes a very determined effort, after kidnaping Tim Desmond, one of those professors. Anyone familiar with Melville could have told him his effort was doomed, for he chooses a boat called the Pea-Quod: Ahab's Pequod, as Melville tells us, was in turn named after an extinct tribe of Indians--a sign and a portent there, lest the reader, on going aboard, be lulled into a false sense of security. But the allusion is no more than that: Boyle does not get carried away and forget what he does best, which is to show Brooklyn as a living entity.

His characters, too, have a keen sense of the eternal verities and the importance of Brooklyn: When Desmond is under the control of the madman Tyrone--who is armed with an M-16 and a vigorous sense of injury--he manages his feelings quite well, right up to where the two of them, in the Pea-Quod, get out of sight of Brooklyn: "The thing Desmond found most startling as they lay quietly behind the beer can- and condom-littered sand bar with the automobile carcass was the sense that Brooklyn had disappeared." Without wanting to give away too much of the story, but out of concern for leaving the reader in an intolerable state of anxiety, I should hasten to point out that, yes, Brooklyn does appear once again on the skyline: All's well that ends well, and we may leave Desmond, for the time being, in the custody of a madman with an automatic weapon and a penchant for drowning people, but with a most excellent view of the city they share.

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