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Sciolist Sinbad Sails to China : QUEER AND ALONE by James Strahs (PAJ Publications: $15.95; 219 pp.)

January 24, 1988|John Espey | Espey is a professor emeritus in English at UCLA

This novel opens with an enchanting and tantalizing sentence: "I was in Rome when I was told I was to die. Well, it made me sick just to think about it. And I had been having such a wonderful time that winter under those balmy Latin skies. I never even thought of leaving for the North and the land of the midnight sun. You might say I was hounded out of town. But better let me give you a few of the details." And details we get aplenty, but none that really explain why Desmond Farrquahr, an American, reacts so violently when the peasant wife of the local Italian gardener grips his hand and says "You will die soon, Mister Desmond, the sooner the better."

We get a couple of hints of American sins of the past, none of which could have got into the Italian papers. A dismissal from a teaching job, unjust, of course, and one Farrquahr thinks still of fighting. But is surely cannot be for anything as trite as his occasional illiteracies: the confusion of prone with supine; his use of irregardless, and a fondness for such phrases as "between Roy and I," "between Nanette and I" and "meant to impress Nanette and I."

"In any event"--and Strahs is maddeningly fond of putting cliches between quotation marks, and especially within direct quotations--our anti-hero is off by way of Dijon to Bremerhaven where he soon finds "his Captain" and boards a steamer "bound for Hong Kong by the way of the Cape of Good Hope." When we learn that the ship is the Hohenstauffen and the captain a "fat-lipped and calculating Oriental of indeterminate origin" whose pilot house library contains not only a manual on boiler maintenance in Spanish and a Shakespeare in German, but also "an edition of the Cantos no bigger than an infant's rubber shoe" we know we must be on the alert for what the publishers describe as Farrquahr's "wordplays with the reader . . . incredibly sly linguistic gifts that turn even the slightest image or sound into the dazzling rhythms of word magic." We "prick up our ears" at the mention of Gibbon or Virgil or Dante or Plato--particularly in relation to the book's title and "The Symposium"--or "a more modern classic, say Kierkegaard or Tsao Hsuen-Chin or the later Isherwood."Farrquahr is usually looking at these as he is stretched out on his chaisse-longue (sic). Surely a clue there. After thinking it over for some time I gave up, and when I found dessicate on the next page I realized that Queer and Alone had been abominably proof-read. And this "presents problems." What hidden references I found seemed so obvious as not to "call for comment." And where an oddity occurs, as in the lovely sentence: "Snow-flake like, every movement has its distinctive 'shape' on the face of the earth, as lightening (sic) . . . " is the reader being led into something more than mere lighten ing suggests? Throughout, Farrquahr's French phrases--and he loves to "drop them in"--are doubtful at best. Or perhaps that itself is a clue?

The passenger list of this "ship of fools" is properly varied and the incidents range from hilarious parody to implausible seductions. The publishers call the book a "scatological romance," but many of the sexual incidents are what most of us would label normal in one sense or another. We visit Monrovia, Bali, Bombay, and the Cayman Islands before we reach Hong Kong, where Farrquahr eats a Chinese feast that begins only slightly abnormally, with waiters actually sporting pigtails, in a variety of dishes that suddenly shifts into a Marx Brothers sequence of "white bread, fried chicken and mashed potatoes, chittlins, steak and French fries, collard greens, sliced ham with pork and beans and apple sauce, rainbow cloud Jell-O and an ocean of creamy hot oyster-shell custard, 50 or 60 gallons of it."

And it is in Hong Kong that the "death" occurs in the form of a merciless beating leaving him unmanned but slowly recovering in a body cast and bound for Hollywood. "I felt it was the only place I could make any real contribution."

Strahs is a member of the New York-based experimental Wooster Group that took part in last summer's Los Angeles Festival. As I watched its performance I felt myself filled with pride at how the avant-garde has steadfastly held its ground ever since I encountered it in high school. (I am now a professor emeritus of the conventional academy.) Never a step in retreat. And thank God the young keep discovering it over and over again, still holding the same old sacred soil. But I'm afraid that when Farrquahr finally "takes a meeting" at some studio he is going to be asked, "How about talking this over again after you've shown us what you can do with a first rewrite?"

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