Doomed Lovers: A Pair of Street Sparrows on String

February 19, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Time Sharing by Richard Krawiec (Viking: $14.95)

Children build sand castles on the beach and come back the next morning to see what the waves have done to them. Or they build sand castles and kick them over right away.

There is a difference, though it may seem hard to pin down. The first is artistic creation. You build, and relinquish what you build to time and the world outside. The second is an aborted gesture, a snatching-back, a game for one player.

Perhaps the uneasiness that some people, myself included, feel about much of Woody Allen's work lies in this holding-on to what he makes. Buster Keaton's art consisted in releasing himself into the air, untethered, a lunatic and totally vulnerable balloon. Allen's balloon bobs with equivalent lunacy, but a string is tied to it and Woody, trotting along below, holds the other end.

Tragicomic in Style

The distinction comes to mind with Richard Krawiec's rueful first novel, "Time Sharing." It is tragicomic in style. It possesses an engaging off-beat humor in some places, and considerable poignancy in others. These things show a promising talent, but they are shadowed by a persistent sense of manipulation.

"Time Sharing" is about Artie and Jolene, two doomed but perky lovers. They are a pair of street sparrows who assume they are the ones at whom the TV ads for Eagle deodorant, Eagle wristwatches and Eagle mutual funds are aimed; and who get smashed by a garbage truck the moment they try soaring.

Artie is a small-time and ineffectual burglar. Jolene, equally ineffectual, had a one-shot career as a prostitute working the gas stations. The first man who picked her up kept her for a while and left her pregnant. Her baby was born deformed. The two waifs meet at the bar where Artie spends his evenings nursing the single beer he can afford. The bar features women wrestling in a tank of Jell-O. One night, Jolene makes a reluctant Jell-O-wrestling debut. It is a humiliating, though comical disaster.

The pair drift together on a current of mutual failure. Artie spends his small savings showing Jolene a good time: going to cheap restaurants, drinking cheap liquor and fantasizing. When the money runs out, Jolene spots an ad for time-share condominiums, with prizes for all who visit.

The visit is a further humiliation. The salesman is contemptuous and finally throws them out. The prizes are junk. Artie and Jolene quarrel as they are driving home. He hits her and the baby; she thumbs a ride with another driver. Artie ends up in the hospital after a speeding car crashes into him.

When they get together again, the failure deepens. After a new set of humiliations, Artie conceives of a desperate time-sharing scheme of his own. Jolene will be the condominium, as it were; customers will buy a portion of time but the real ownership will remain with Artie. The subsequent disaster is irreparable.

To conceive of prostitution, the symbol of abasement, as time-sharing, the symbol of our contemporary good life, is first-rate satire. That Artie conceives it blindly and out of despair, removes all contrivance, and is a mark of Krawiec's talent.

Mixture of Comedy, Pain

There are others. The Jell-O wrestling scene at the beginning is a wonderful mixture of comedy and pain. Jolene justifies herself amid the humiliation by telling herself: "I am a mother." Her love for the flailing Artie and her efforts to convince him that there is still hope are genuinely touching.

Krawiec feeds his characters lines that serve, not to express them but to fix them. Artie tells Jolene that, without her, life would be "the soup without the sandwich." "Nobody ever says things like that to me," she pops back.

The hopelessness becomes a hopelessness shtick. Krawiec builds his sand castle with alluring imagination; but mainly to be knocked down.

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