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Slapstick Stoicism : EXPERIMENTS WITH LIFE AND DEAF by Chuck Rosenthal (Weidenfeld & Nicolson:17.95; 272 pp.)

December 27, 1987|Hannah Sampson | Sampson is a free-lance critic and essayist. and

"Loop's Progress," the first book of a projected trilogy, was the stuff of disconnections; always stunningly implausible.

"Experiments With Life and Deaf," (Vol. II), commences where the first left off. Now the "shticks" become tedious through overkill. (Flattened between colliding trains, your shoelaces come undone. Pure slapstick. A little goes a long way.)

As before, hysterical episodes have no aftermath. Neighbors with cannon at the ready wait for the invasion they're certain will follow the Cuban Missile Crisis. Franky's family holds a vigi1814063470killed, waiting for the candle to be snuffed out by a car as Franky was, a repeat from Vol. I.

In "Loop's Progress," we met teen-ager Jarvis Loop. Uneducated, he evaluated life with the musings and vocabulary of a Ph.D. Without parental intervention, he burglarized, shot up, boozed, snorted cocaine, and smoked marijuana. He suffered no damage.

Allusions abound here, so arcane, only Rosenthal can know what he intends: "She ate more civilized than a house plant." Three chapter titles project the grandmother's last Christmas, but she's still around, and not even mentioned in the third "chapter."

The voices are of a piece. Kara, Jarvis' lover, no genius, sounds like Neda, Jarvis' genius sister. Neda sounds like the intellectual "Dialectician" Willie, the one who can't pronounce "th" and so we have "Deaf" instead of "Death." (Since everything happens as a fait accompli, there are no experiments in life or death.) Jarvis either impersonates the ignorant kid he is, or spouts psychobabble. "Me and Igor shook hands . . . " and (on the same page) " . . . his absence has . . . awakened Raymon's ability to avoid dualisms . . . ."

In a snit, Red, the father, literally breaks everything in the interior of the house, even the refrigerator. He then hurls his bowling ball against the flourishing pear tree to destroy it. The ball ricochets into Red's chest. Which should kill him; but this is slapstick, so Red is only annoyed because the disorder he creates " . . . made him feel like he was living in a slum . . . ."

They're all on a statically picaresque journey, moving within a tiny radius, the same unreliable scenery in the background. Rosenthal never lets us know them, only their shenanigans.

When 18-year-old Jarvis gets 25-year-old Kara pregnant, although her every thought and action are shown to be as far-out as the Milky Way, she prosaically demands marriage. Jarvis now needs more money than he can steal at his regular 9-5 job burglarizing the rich. No problem.

He hi-jacks a pleasure yacht, shooting a cannonball across the bow to show the captain he means business. He gets away with the loot when genius Neda's Space Capsule comes down in the middle of the transaction. Mack Sennett did this in one-reelers, and Mel Brooks is in the forefront of such inventiveness, all for momentary laughs. See Jarvis: Faced with cutting the wedding cake, he instead punches it out. Not, according to Rosenthal, for a laugh. He just does it.

To contain the effluvia of his infant's uncontrollable feces and urine, Jarvis regularly carries the baby about upside down. Visceral jokes are the Fort Knox of slapstick.

Without preparation, there's an unexpected conclusion.

Kara's dog sums it all up expertly: "Polly Doggeral yawned and said 'Arf' like barf or scarf or suicide, or semicolon, rather stoic."


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