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Boiled Alive in Marin County : PURSUED BY THE CROOKED MAN by Susan Trott (Harper & Row: $16.95; 256 pp.)

January 17, 1988|Donna Levin | Levin's most recent novel is "Extraordinary Means" (Arbor House)

Susan Trott is the prolific author of offbeat tales of Marin County damsels in distress. She does not fit neatly into any category; her voice is so uniquely hers that your ear must be tuned to listen. But if you jive to her rhythm, your toes will soon tap in effortless time.

Her heroines want only to lead uncomplicated, fulfilling lives. And they would, except for the various rapists, assassins and other felons standing in their way. Violence is quotidian in Trott's world.

Consider the premise of her latest novel, Pursued by the Crooked Man : Miliana Bartha is convinced that her estranged husband, Dominic, a handsome underworld figure, has been searching for her for the past six years, intending to kill her. She displays tremendous equanimity about this, however, especially since it gives her an excuse not to pursue gainful employment, which would allow Dominic to trace her.

Even when someone tries to boil her alive in her hot tub (a particularly Marin County type of murder attempt), Miliana remains calm. Just in case Dominic does catch up with her, though, Miliana wants to leave a legacy behind, so she embarks on a modern interpretation of Mother Goose rhymes. Here, for example, is Miliana on "Tom, Tom, the piper's son, who stole a pig and away he run": "There's no way I can get around the fact, try as I may, that he stole the pig. I deplore crookedness of any kind which is why (well, partly why) I left Dominic Racatelli."

Thievery is much on Miliana's mind, if not conscience, since when she left Dominic she appropriated much of his ill-gotten wealth. In the guise of writing about "the crooked man" of the nursery rhyme, Miliana describes her relationship with the man whose crookedness had nothing to do with his spine.

Unfortunately, these Mother Goose essays soon become tedious. Of more interest are the other people in Miliana's life: her two lovers, Joel and Tom, her friend Soo Yung, and a neighbor whose relationship with his dog passes comfortably beyond the neurotic. All of these characters are possible threats, and it isn't clear who it is who tampers with the thermostat of the hot tub or who menaces Miliana while she is blinded by eyelash dye at the beauty salon.

Miliana herself is capable of wild behavior. When Joel confronts her with some unpleasant truths about herself, she pushes his trailer off a cliff, almost hurting a rival girlfriend who is inside. Afterwards, everyone but the girlfriend has a good laugh.

Then Miliana's house burns down. This is the turning point in the novel: Miliana is badly burned in an attempt to rescue her lover Tom, and permanently scarred. " 'So what are scars?' " she asks Soo Yung. " 'It will look interesting. . . . I still have my personality and my mind. At least, I hope I have my mind. It's been letting me down a bit. . . .' "

The fire was arson. Suddenly the danger to Miliana is real, and by this time the pieces are in place for a fascinating end game, during which we watch all the characters interconnect to lead us to a satisfying conclusion. It is here that Trott's displays her greatest skills.

It is also here that Miliana, who up to now has not been the most likable of Trott's heroines, begins to reveal her true and better self as she deals with her disfigurement and faces down her enemies. We admire her for her courage, endurance and humor.

This book is about betrayal, and how it is embedded in the very nature of love. Miliana is a woman much loved by her friends, lover and children. But who really loves her? Finally, it might be the man sworn to kill her.

Trott manages to write about infidelity, arson and murder in a humorous, but not trivial, vein. Though it is at times difficult to penetrate the author's own attitude towards these events, we come to enjoy her left-of-center reality. Her world is boldly and imaginatively drawn; she is an acquired taste that could become an addiction.

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