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FICTION : UTAH by Toby Olson (Linden: $16.95; 256 pp.).

June 14, 1987|Judith Freeman

Utah, the Beehive State, is a region known for its Mormons and an otherworldly landscape. Only the latter, that terrain that feels like nowhere else on Earth, figures into this brilliant novel by Toby Olson, poet and winner of the 1983 PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel "Seaview."

Like "Seaview," "Utah" is a novel describing a journey. David, a masseur, is seeking freedom from the past and a "closure of romance" when he decides to revisit people he's known--a former Navy buddy, college friends, his ex-wife. His odyssey, which takes him from New York to California, is precipitated by two events: Anson, his roommate of 10 years, dies from an unnamed disease that is obviously AIDs, and he receives a box of mementos from his former mother-in-law.

In his travels, he seems capable of releasing people's stories as he kneads their flesh, acting as an "agent for mild revelation." These tangential stories eventually converge in an artist's colony in Utah.

Toward the end, things turn quite surreal, much the way they do in Paul Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky" (there are tunnels, Indian caves and swarms of bees directed by telepathy). It doesn't all work. I found the last half of the book a little weaker than the first. However, there's a hint of faint mystery, of wonders underlying the world, a poet's sensibility, and sensuality, on every page. Nature is seldom more simply or convincingly evoked. "Utah" is, above all, a novel of immense beauty.

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