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Book Review : Cows on a Rooftop, Other Anomalies

May 19, 1988|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Come Sunday by Bradford Morrow (Weidenfeld & Nicholson: $19.94; 399 pages)

The interest of algebra does not lie mainly in what X denotes. That X equals 37 is pretty much beside the point; what matters is the pattern we follow to discover it. Still, pure mathematics can only be practiced for a few hours at a time; you need to stop for a sandwich.

Novels tend to incorporate the sandwich within themselves. Displacements of style, ways of apprehending or misapprehending, identities concealed or revealed, the suggestion that a story is told to demonstrate the impossibility of telling a story--these contemporary fictional fun and games can be instructive games, and often fun. But after awhile, unless the book is short, we require lunch. It comes to matter what X denotes.

Bradford Morrow's "Come Sunday" is an accomplished anthology of current literary themes and ways of delivering them. It touches on sickness, both the indigenous and the American variety, in Central America; on corruption and drugs in our cities; on the new rootlessness of our countryside; on the severed links among our generations; on the dissolution of our social and personal ties; on the blurring of lines between enterprise and criminal enterprise.

Elements of the Surreal

It has elements of the surreal, of the absurd, of the hallucinatory, of the high-colored exotic, of affectless narration. The writing is complex but controlled; its confusions are purposeful and aimed at establishing a ground-fog of disquiet through which the characters blindly stumble.

It is a highly schooled work, and it contains at least one first-rate invention. Its inhabitants are revealed in a multitude of subtle and unexpected stages, interrupted, in a kind of chiaroscuro, by mysteries and puzzles. What is revealed, though, is frontiers; the way the characters impinge upon each other, the way their life impinges upon them. But there is very little within the frontiers. Nothing much moves inside them.

The plot concerns a transaction between corruption and madness. Owen Berkeley, a wealthy Upstate New Yorker who has spent his wealth on a series of kinky scientific experiments, is attempting to find the secret of prolonging life. On the shadowy border of Nicaragua and Honduras, Obregon, an uprooted Somocista who runs a remote enclave with the help of guerrillas, comes up with an Indian who he claims is more than 400 years old.

Shady Intermediaries

A series of shady intermediaries undertakes to convey the Indian to Berkeley for a large sum of money that will bankrupt what is left of his estate. These include Krieger, a malevolent and flowery swindler and drug smuggler--he quotes Mircea Eliade upon occasion--and Lupi, a young Italian from a wealthy family who is a former left-wing terrorist.

Lupi takes the Indian to New York City on the way to Berkeley. They put up with Hannah, formerly a protege and lover of Krieger's. She is the owner of a miniature cattle farm--six cows--that she has spent a $2-million inheritance to install, secretly, on the roof of a Manhattan warehouse.

The delivery never takes place. Berkeley's daughter, aware that her father is about to ruin himself and his children, summons her brother Jonathan, a spoiled rich-kid leftist who works as an agricultural adviser in Central America. He has a dim entanglement with Krieger--dim entanglements abound--but is expected to oppose the scheme. In any event, the Indian dies and Obregon betrays Krieger by notifying the local police. Dim betrayals are almost as common as dim entanglements.

The plot, more complex than this summary, is a shadowy background, in fact. Morrow blurs each climax so that we are not certain what has happened until some time later, at which point it may not much matter.

Hannah's rooftop farm is a splendid invention. Her farmer uncle left her his money on condition that she would use his livestock, tools and other farm possessions. This would bring her back to Nebraska, he calculated; instead, she has installed Nebraska in New York.

The notion gleams with real fantasy; it is a transforming absurdity. The story of Hannah's childhood in Nebraska comes alive; so, to some degree, does Lupi's past as an itinerant terrorist. But this past life, this past significance, does not nourish the hazy and weightless present in which the book drifts.

In front of the plot's shadows, the shadowy characters move, to no very urgent purpose and with no convincing energy. Even Krieger, the swindler, is futile and uncertain. He is, in fact, an elaborate version of the Hunter Thompson character in Doonesbury. And that is symptomatic of the book's weakness.

For all its expert elaboration, its interweaving of moral, emotional and political textures, and a trance-like atmosphere suggestive of large messages, there is nothing much left in "Come Sunday" once its puzzles are nudged at. Obregon, Lupi, Berkeley, Jonathan, along with several other convoluted figures, possess very little life, character or emblematic strength. Like cartoons, they are their convolutions.

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