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Ransom by Jay McInerney (Vintage: $5.95, paperback; 279 pp.)

October 06, 1985|Andrew Weinberger | Weinberger is a novelist who recently spent a year in Japan doing pretty much what Chris Ransom did. and

In an age of nuclear anxiety, leave it to Jay McInerney to master the art of the stress-free novel. Reading his work is effortless, like drinking Kool-Aid and watching TV at the same time: What you see is what you get, plus a little sugar water.

This is McInerney's second effort, and, though wittier and more complex, it is still very much like "Bright Lights, Big City," the story of a handsome young man trying to find himself. This time, however, we are far removed from the cocaine parlors of Manhattan. The scene is Kyoto, where Chris Ransom, 26, son of a West Coast television producer, has been earnestly studying karate while teaching English part time.

The plot darts from one area to another, touching eventually on everything from dojos to fugu fish. Ransom, we are told, was getting over an acute case of "Asia burn" when he arrived in Kyoto. Dope dealing and violence in Pakistan had left him spiritually bereaved and, like other travelers of his generation, he yearned for a path. Now, after two years of kicking and punching and bowing and sweeping, he is beginning to wonder what it all means.

His father, from whom he is estranged, wants him to return to the States and make something of himself. An ex-Marine named Frank DeVito wants him to fight. And somewhere in town there is (perhaps) an oya-bun (Godfather) who wants him dead. Ransom divides his time between karate practice, English lessons, flashbacks from the Khyber Pass, and hanging out at a cowboy blues lounge.

But while there is situation here aplenty, the characters seem to speak out of barroom voids. Who they are and why they're here are mysteries, let alone why we should care about them. They slide along on glib talk, trying as best they can to outdo one another. Ransom's request for a black belt, for example, is deftly rebuffed by the sensei (teacher). "If you get this obi dirty enough," he says, "I'm sure it will turn black."

Now and then McInerney indulges in cheap shots at Japanese manners and pronunciation. "Flank" Sinatra's name comes up, as well as a Western gear outlet called "Hormone Derange." To bask excessively in such errant humor, however, is to run the risk of trivializing one's story. Often, it seems, the author comes perilously close to doing just that.

Ransom vacillates between feeling tense, bored, and fed up with the absurdity of it all. And though he thinks he wants to penetrate Japanese society, in the end this is really a tale about being on the outside looking in. In that sense, McInerney has written a particularly American novel, one that speaks directly to our national loneliness and our deep-seated need to come home.

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