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Book Review : Raunchy Way of Life in a Pixilated Patch of Dorset

November 12, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Dancing With Mermaids by Miles Gibson (E. P. Dutton: $14.95)

Rams Horn lies on the coast of Dorset, not of Wales, but it is plain that Miles Gibson's daft townful is a raunchier twin to Dylan Thomas' Llareggub. Here, for example, is a Milk Wood-like overview, just a few pages into "Dancing With Mermaids":

"The butcher scatters sawdust and dreams of walrus meat as he prods the pork with sprigs of parsley. Mrs. Reynolds appears in the high street, running on some secret errand, high heels clicking on the wet cobbles. Later Doctor Douglas leaves his surgery and walks the beach, stands to stare at Regent Terrace and dreams of finding Mrs. Clancy sitting naked in his waiting room. Far out on the rocks boys throw stones at gulls and watch, in horrified delight, for Tom Crow to limp down from his lair in the cliffs, hair tangled and eyes full of stars."

"Dancing With Mermaids" is an "Under Milk Wood" with the volume turned up and everybody trying much harder. Rams Horn, its locale, stands on pixilated ground. The ground is a miasmic seaside marsh. It served successively as a health spa--until it was noticed that the visitors got sick--and a seaside resort, and it is now moldering. Its principal products are a special kind of sausage, an aphrodisiacal fish soup, and moon-madness.

Demented Shuttles

Its residents dart about the place like demented weaver's shuttles running up a fabric that is all clamorous woof, and largely warped. Their errands concern sex.

Two small boys concoct a series of plots to get the mother of a friend in their power, so that they can take off her clothes and indulge in the entire range of base practices that their imaginations can devise. It is not a very large range, since their imaginations are pretty young. In any event, both hypnotism and sleeping pills fail to do the trick.

Mrs. Reynolds, a prim but incandescent widow, takes in a Nigerian sailor as her boarder. He sings hymns and ravishes her with equal energy; and the arrangement gives mutual satisfaction until he extends his missionary work to Mrs. Reynolds' 16-year-old daughter. Whereupon, with the help of the local herbalist and witch doctor, she serves him an effective though non-lethal poisonous mushroom in his salad.

There is an assortment of itchy bachelors who lubricate their imaginations in the local pub and go for moonlit Peeping Tom walks. Tom Crow wears an aviator's costume in expectation of the imminent arrival of visitors from outer space. Charlie Bloater raises cabbages and dreams of seafaring; his compromise is to build a large boat inside his cottage, tear down the cottage, and live in the boat.

The motor of Rams Horn's psychic and sexual energies is Mrs. Clancy, the local medium and crystal-ball consultant. She is a voluptuous widow, in a state of perpetual excited mourning for her husband, Capt. Turnpike Clancy, who disappeared years ago off Southampton and is presumably dead.

Falls in Love

Mrs. Clancy's excitation increases at the expense of her mourning when Dr. Douglas, a big, shambling man who has lost all his trade to the herbalist, falls in love with her. Books fly around the room at her seances, and lubricious demons emerge from her crystal ball.

By the end, most of the villagers are drawn into her ectoplasmic maelstrom. Peace is restored only after various scattered nighttime expeditions, and the devising of a convenient fiction which stipulates that the doctor and the departed captain are to be considered one and the same person or ghost.

Some of this is funny, but it is all pretty hard work. "Dancing With Mermaids" is comical-lyrical, as fey as a grammar school audition for Cinderella's Fairy Godmother, and consciously wind-tossed. Its characters get up to more hare-brained schemes than the Milk Wooders, and are consumed by even more extravagant longings. What is missing is Dylan Thomas' tender balance. The delicate path between waking and sleeping, between reality and magic, becomes a floodlit pedestrian mall.

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