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Book Review : A Change of Venue for a Coming-of-Age Novel

March 05, 1987|PAUL WILNER

Kiddo by David Handler (Ballantine: $4.95: paperback)

The main twist to "Kiddo," David Handler's contribution to the Jewish-American coming-of-age novel, appears to be geographic.

The life and times of Danny Levine, his pudgy pre-adolescent protagonist, take place in Los Angeles instead of the usual Tri-State milieu. Once you get past the novelty of substituting palm trees for subway straps, however, there's little to distinguish Handler's effort from its dozens of high, middle and low-grade predecessors in this strip-mined genre.

Handler contrasts Danny's point of view with that of his newest friend, Newt Biddle, an anti-Semitic preppy, if that's not an oxymoron, whose family has fallen on hard times and whose mother has a habit of falling into the salad bowl after too many "vod and tons."

Newt initiates Danny into the joys of covert smoking and petty shoplifting and encourages him to fight back against enforced violin lessons, resulting in a psychic split in the soul of this lower-Westwood Stephen Daedalus.

After Danny's father, poor-but-honest stationery store owner Abe Levine, discovers the petty deceptions, he confronts his son, forcing him to make hard choices about his character and associates. Readers will be relieved to know that Danny abandons his wastrel ways, conquers his "attitude problem" and goes back to the violin, even if he was slightly more interesting as a would-be rebel in search of a cause.

Poor Marketing Strategy?

The quality of writing in "Kiddo," sad to say, is only average, creating the impression that the book would be more appropriately marketed as a young adult novel than an adult paperback original in the crowded field of talented young novelists.

Unlike Philip Roth, who has managed to exhibit obsessive inventiveness within a relatively narrow range, or Frank Conroy, whose "Stop-Time" remains a masterpiece of autobiographical incident, "Kiddo" does not show enough concentration on detail, development of character or dramatic conflict to justify strong reader interest.

An opening cadenza, repeating the word boss several times in an apparent attempt to be hip, illustrates some of the book's problems.

"They were sitting across the aisle from each other in the back row of Beverly Glen Synagogue, the rich people's temple on the corner of Wilshire and Beverly Glen. Actually, the place took up the whole block, on account of how it was the very first ranch-style shul ever built in America . . . Danny didn't know about that. All he knew was that it was some kind of boss place from the outside . . . And the inside was even more boss . . . Beverly Glen's ark had to be the bossest thing Danny had ever seen, except for maybe the new Matterhorn ride at Disneyland."

This kind of prose makes Eve Babitz look like a major stylist.

Undeveloped Scenes

Written largely in dialogue, "Kiddo" lacks solid descriptions of the environment in which the characters' experiences take place and fails to develop some of its more promising themes--the homo-erotic aspects of Danny and Newt's friendship, Danny's sexual yearnings toward the princesses with whom he goes to school and how it feels to be less than affluent in a culture geared to wealth.

As Gertrude Stein told Hemingway, start over again, and concentrate.

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