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The Critic on the Lam From Himself : THE CIRCLE TOUR by William Wiser (Atheneum: $19.95; 388 pp.)

May 15, 1988|Elaine Kendall

The narrator calls himself The Critic, a man whose Miami bookstore has been ingested by a chain named for Thoreau's pond. When "The Circle Tour" opens, The Critic is working as an attendant in a mental hospital, existing in an uneasy truce with his anorexic wife, Valerie, who has divided their house into halves strictly separated by mosquito netting. Flimsy as it is, the netting is as effective as the Berlin Wall.

Among his charges at the hospital is The Poet, a failed suicide named Gold, who finally succeeds in doing away with himself after giving The Critic a hot tip on a horse named Naiad in the seventh race at a local track. (Who knows, these details may be heavily symbolic.) Among Gold's papers is an invitation to serve as poet in residence at a college in Belfast, an opportunity The Critic seizes upon as a way out of his intolerable life. He is a literary chap himself, overqualified for his job in the mental hospital, and Belfast hasn't been too attractive to visiting academics since the troubles.

The Critic turns out to be correct in his assumption that the authorities in Belfast are in no position to be too finicky about credentials in filling their empty academic chairs, and since his betting partner is no longer either up to the job or interested in his share of the winnings, The Critic decides to fulfill his obligations for him. From various conversations between these two principals in the course of The Poet's confinement in the San Souci Sanitarium, we gather that this is exactly what The Poet would have wished; that he engineered the whole plan.

Before leaving to take up his new persona in the embattled college, The Critic feels obliged to track down Gold's ex-wife, Ginny, a free spirit currently employed as a go-go girl in a Texas saloon. This is accomplished with the reluctant help of Ginny's father, a retired major who virtually lives in his bomb shelter surrounded by survival food, army ordnance and virulent prejudices. The ensuing bus trip from Miami to Austin provides The Critic with further opportunities for satire, but all this is merely a prelude to the sojourn in Belfast, where he really hits his stride. Having made Ginny his own, as it were, if only briefly, and grown a beard, the transformation from Critic to Poet is all but complete.

Once in Belfast, the prose style changes to lyrical Irish, as The Critic adopts the speech patterns and the drinking habits of his hosts, both florid. Despite political turmoil, perishing cold and unceasing rain, Belfast is a remarkably high-spirited place, and The Critic's adventures among the bards of that city would make a cat laugh. Unfortunately, the idyll ends when a photograph of the deceased Gold turns up in a magazine, and The Critic is exposed as an imposter.

Happily, he has been dogged throughout his travels by a mysterious Canadian woman who is seeking a biographer. The Critic fills the bill admirably, and the two of them go junketing through France in great luxury, finally winding up on the Riviera, where for no discernable reason, Mrs. Rappaport scuttles the project, leaving The Critic at loose ends once more; Irish accent gone, Chavet shirts left behind, the late Mr. Gold's passport ever more suspect.

Drawn back to Miami by the same forces that propelled him away, he finds a job as night man in a seedy hotel on the beach, a haven inhabited by characters just as batty as the inmates of the San Souci or the residents of Belfast, though in different ways. After a while, The Critic begins prowling his old neighborhood, where he spies his wife, now apparently cured of her anorexia and functioning more or less normally. The Circle Tour is complete.

The novel, especially in its Irish sections, is thickly sprinkled with literary tags, all bent slightly out of shape but still recognizable as coming from the finest poetic shops. Witty, amusing and often self-consciously literary, "The Circle Tour" has a narrator in search of an identity, trapped in a novel in need of a structure. The picaresque tradition is a noble one, but its great practitioners made sure their heroes ended somewhere entirely different from the place where they began.

The Critic remains merely The Critic to the last page of this long and ambitious novel, never having acquired either a new personality or even a name he can call his own; still carrying around the battered Gladstone bag full of his absconded, deceased father's letters, a parody of Lord Chesterfield's advice to his son. He's an 18th-Century fellow, this Critic, who somehow wandered into a late-20th-Century novel.

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