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The Chemistry of Collecting : BLUEBEARD The Autobiography Of Rabo Karabekian (1916-1988) by Kurt Vonnegut (Delacorte Press: $17.95; 300 pp.)

October 04, 1987|Aram Saroyan | Saroyan's new novel, "The Romantic," will be published next year by McGraw-Hill. and

"Bluebeard," Kurt Vonnegut's 16th book, is, the author tells us in his own jacket copy and in a prefatory note, "a novel, and a hoax autobiography at that . . . about a man who was in on the beginning of the first major art movement to originate in the United States, Abstract Expressionism, and whose pictures all fell apart due to an unfortunate choice of materials. He is Rabo Karabekian . . . whose parents survived the first attempted genocide of this century, the slaughter by Turkey of its Armenian citizens before the First World War."

Rabo, now an elderly widower with a prose-style disarmingly similar to Kurt Vonnegut's, lives in his deceased wife Edith Fairbanks Taft's Southampton mansion with a live-in cook, Allison White, and her teen-age daughter, Celeste. They are soon joined by Circe Berman, an attractive 43-year-old widow who, under the pseudonym Polly Madison, is a popular writer of teen-age problem books. Rabo has a potato barn, formerly his studio and now sheltering a secret legacy, under lock and key.

Rabo and Circe live together chastely, warily but, one comes to feel, with mutual benefit. The memoir proceeds in a kind of benign slow-motion (three asterisks break the prose every few paragraphs), interweaving memories and anecdotes with present-tense domestic incidents.

Again and again this reviewer found himself, somewhat mindlessly, smiling. Here, for example, is the memoirist's description of what happened "thanks to unforeseen chemical reactions between the sizing of my canvases and the acrylic wall-paint and color tapes I had applied to them":

". . . People who had paid $15- or $20- or even $30,000 for a picture of mine found themselves gazing at a blank canvas, all ready for a new picture, and ringlets of color tapes and what looked like moldy Rice Krispies on the floor."

However, in a book that is presented as an insider's memoir of the founding of the Abstract Expressionist movement, mention of the relevant painters, real or imagined, is disappointingly brief and none of it very telling. (Jackson Pollock, for example, has a non-speaking walk-on.) Finally, on Page 243 of the 300-page novel, we come to what is identifiably the big chapter on the Abstract Expressionists and which begins at their favorite Manhattan haunt, the legendary Cedar Tavern. The major anecdote, an extremely tame one, is prefaced by Rabo as follows:

". . . Lest I give aid and comfort to Philistines eager to hear that the first Abstract Expressionists were a bunch of drunks and wild men, let me say who these three weren't . . . they were not , repeat, were not : William Baziotes, James Brooks, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Syd Solomon or Bradley Walker Tomlin."

After going over this seemingly--but, in fact, not quite--exhaustive list a second time, as well as puzzling over the unfamiliar name of Syd Solomon (not mentioned anywhere else in the novel), I asked myself whether the three painters referred to, then, were not Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Theodoros Stamos.

In any case, because the ensuing anecdote involves the three being fitted for suits by a tailor named Isadore Finkelstein at the behest of the narrator, it is scarcely likely to give comfort to Philistines, nor much enlightenment to fans. What does Vonnegut actually know of the painters he presumes to be telling us about? On the evidence of this book, one would have to answer "not very much."

So one reads on, wondering where it is all going and, even after that disappointing chapter, whether it is going anywhere at all. Vonnegut is not a celebrator of landscape, weather, colors, sights and smells. Nor is he, at least in this book, a chronicler of vivid characters. He is, rather, a monologist who takes particular delight and fascination in the chemistry, often unexpected ( vide the narrator's paintings), of the animate and inanimate things of this world. I will not give away the pleasing ending of this story, which needs every bit of suspense it generates, except to say that it encompasses the most vivid and uncharacteristic description in the novel: Rabo's awakening on the edge of a green valley in Germany on the day the Second World War ended. The narrator, having been a prisoner of the Germans, awakens with thousands of others on a beautiful spring morning, all of them now free. The moment shines with a fresh, primordial power that the rest of the book lacks.

Like Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut is a writer whose identity may be said to have been forged in the crucible of his time as a soldier during the Second World War. For him, as for Mailer, that time would seem to have dwarfed and subsumed all that went before and all that was to come after it. Thus Mailer's new movie, "Tough Guys Don't Dance," makes more sense as a war movie disguised as a contemporary film noir than it does as an actual comment on today. Likewise, Vonnegut's purported insider's look at the founding of the first native American art movement only really wakes up on the morning of May 8, 1945, on the rim of a valley in Germany 3,000 miles from the Cedar Tavern.

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