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South Florida Satiricon : CRIMINAL TENDENCIES by William O'Rourke (E.P. Dutton: $19.95; 406 pp.)

October 04, 1987|Dan Pyne | Pyne has become a Cubs fan and a Bud man after playing script surgeon on a Walter Hill film shooting in Chicago

Anyone who feels bludgeoned by the recent overhype of the "literary brat pack" (whose vapid sub-literary efforts seem destined to make prime-time television our cultural epoch) will find solace in the vivid, multidimensional storytelling of William O'Rourke's new novel, "Criminal Tendencies."

Anyone who doesn't feel bludgeoned should check out this review here and go look at the pictures in "Interview" magazine.

O'Rourke's wonderful, woolly tale of crime and character unfolds in the steamy seams of South Florida, where a burned-out free-lance journalist named Kenner is trying to jump-start his ambition, but succeeding mainly in further confounding himself.

There is Bridget, a middle-aged English dominatrix who is Kenner's mother-mistress; Kristina, Bridget's scantily brained daughter, who comes to Key West with a child and a manic-depressive part-time boyfriend named Curt. There is Duane, a sadistic ex-con whose loyalty to the gang is fleeting at best. And there is Rea, a bright, life-battered young woman floating in an emotional numbness until she collides with Kenner, and they see in each other a kind of modest salvation.

O'Rourke works somewhat in the tradition of Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford, using the crime novel as a blackly comic vehicle for social commentary; sharp dialogue, electric prose, hard-luck folks stuck fast in the hot, fetid, overtly sexual climate of South Florida and the Keys.

But "Criminal Tendencies" has poetic and literary levels that overshadow and finally overpower the mechanics of its simple crime plot. O'Rourke slips effortlessly between characters, allowing his intricate story to be told from contrasting points of view. Where traditionally there are twists and surprises, O'Rourke offers up character catharses and sudden, jolting connections of thematic threads.

Audubon and his ornithological studies become both metaphor and framework for the fiction. O'Rourke dissects his characters at the same time he's fleshing them out, paints the most unpleasant actions with a meticulous control of language. Repeated imagery of flight of nature, of raw animal behavior--mating rituals, sexual behavior, predatory instincts, domination--give O'Rourke's narrative the weird, somewhat clinical undertone of a biological study, which only cranks up the power of his writing:

"He (Kenner) began to realize that his whole professional life, if he could call such a ragtag output as he had managed a professional life, had been at the expense of others. All journalists might be professional parasites, but . . . Kenner pictured (himself as) one of those more symbiotic than parasitic creatures, a tick bird on the back of a rhino, sucker fish attached to sharks: there, ready."

It is a complex, but still commercial novel filled with compassion for a sometimes bleak, always tragicomic world. O'Rourke writes with care and completeness; even his minor characters are distinctly defined, memorable.

OK, maybe "Criminal Tendencies" will never get William O'Rourke into trendy after-hour clubs or Scotch whisky advertisements. But it's doubtful he'd find anyone interesting enough there to put into one of his fine novels, anyway.

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