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Talking Man by Terry Bisson (Arbor House: $14.95; 192 pp.)

November 09, 1986|Jesus Salvador Trevino | Trevino is a writer/director whose current project is "Birthwrite," a documentary on Hispanic American writers. and

Life for a wizard at the end of time isn't all that it's cracked up to be. In fact, it can get downright lonely. So what's a wizard to do? If you're the wizard in Terry Bisson's second novel, "Talking Man," you can dream reality into being. So you dream yourself a companion, a woman named Djene. But you get more than you bargained for. It seems you forgot to dream her up a soul. As a result, Djene's out to destroy the world that you created, the reality that we are all a part of. And she can do this, you see, because she's a dreamer also.

"Talking Man" is a fantasy novel of adventure written in a crisp, precise and sweeping style. Like Ursula LeGuin's "Lathe of Heaven," it is a novel about a dream and the world in that dream, and it leaves you wondering, "Am I real or a character in somebody's dream?"

To destroy the world, Djene has invented the Unbeen, "a substance slick like water and sticky like fire and as cold as the cold between the stars." It's the anti-matter that can swallow up the world the wizard so dearly loves.

The wizard must act. He steals the Unbeen, takes along a magical owl on which the world turns, and flees to hide in our present. He settles down in a small junkyard on the side of a hill on the Kentucky Tennessee line--he'll repair cars for a living. He marries, but his wife is killed in an auto wreck, leaving him a house trailer and Crystal, a 16-year-old daughter. The wizard doesn't say much, that's why the local folk call him Talking Man.

Bisson's vivid prose lets us know up front that Talking Man is no ordinary, garden variety, junkyard mechanic: "Talking Man could persuade a redbelly Ford tractor to start on a bone-cold February morning just by shaking a 2x4 at it, as if it were a smart mule. He could take a knock out of a poured-bearing Chevrolet with a set of 3/8-inch sockets and a wood file in an afternoon."

It doesn't take long for Djene to track the wizard down. And even less time for Talking Man to make his escape. He steals a '66 Mustang and, with Unbeen and magic owl in tow, sets out across the United States. He is pursued by Djene, his daughter Crystal and her friend William Williams. Williams is a teen-ager who borrowed the Mustang from a cousin and is in a hot jam unless he can recover the stolen car. Along the way, Talking Man begins to dream-alter reality to help his escape. The chase is on, and reality as we know it is out the window.

It's an action-filled romp through a surreal landscape of ever-changing America, a sojourn that takes the reader down a mile-deep canyon gorge to the northward flowing Mississippi, past the longest traffic jam in history, and through the burning holocaust of Denver. Interwoven into this lively narrative is a recurring question. If someone is changing our reality from moment to moment, how do we know it?

Young Williams, poring over a road map, asks himself this very question: "Wasn't there another city besides Tulsa in Oklahoma? Wasn't there another state between Oklahoma and Mexico? He couldn't be sure, and the longer he looked at the map, the righter it looked."

And that is, of course, the best way to tell when someone has been tampering with your reality. It's the sense of jamais vu that Williams experiences; that feeling of "never having seen" something that by all logic you should know very well--the opposite of deja vu.

So who wins the cross-country race? Will Crystal and Williams retrieve the Mustang? Will Djene destroy the world? Can Talking Man save the universe and himself? Catch up with "Talking Man" and find out.

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