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The Mystery of the White Laker : GHOST A Novel by Peter Barsocchini (E.P. Dutton: $18.95; 356 pp.)

June 18, 1989|Tom Nolan | Nolan is a contributing editor to Los Angeles Magazine and

A superstar player for the world-champion Los Angeles Lakers is the title character in this intermittently impressive but disappointing first novel by Los Angeles screenwriter and producer Peter Barsocchini.

Thomas Galvin, nicknamed "Ghost" as the only white member of his high school basketball team, is said to be the shortest (at 6 feet 4) and the highest-scoring Laker. A Stanford man, he's the surviving son of a U.S. senator from Wisconsin who died campaigning for vice president.

An apparent scandal in the senator's past gets Ghost involved with journalist Rebecca Blesser, an adoptee whose research into his father's life masks her real agenda: to learn whether she is the senator's illegitimate child.

Ghost is at first reluctant to cooperate with Rebecca but changes his mind when she agrees to help him get background information about an 11-year-old runaway called Radio, whom Ghost has taken under his wing.

Barsocchini shows real talent for sketching scenes and personalities. There are several effective set pieces, among them: the pickup basketball games Ghost and Radio join during a cross-country drive, Ghost's memories of the senator silently watching him shooting hoops in a darkened gym, an awkward prison visit between Radio and the convict he thinks is his father, an old judge's ruminations about the fleeting nature of the deference paid him ("The young people looked at him with those tolerant smiles that mean, 'Isn't it nice you're up and around, but don't stay at the Stop sign too long' ").

Ghost's perceptions about the insulation provided by celebrity have the ring of truth. "Inside the cocoon of a public persona," Barsocchini writes, "Ghost could find safety, because people did not know who they were dealing with. They knew the basketball player who performed three-sixty spin moves, who did sneaker commercials on television, who appeared twenty feet high on billboards selling Coca-Cola. And because the public's vision of Ghost was manufactured by images on television and in print, they couldn't reach him. Ghost liked that."

Unfortunately, much more of "Ghost" does not ring at all true. Would a college-educated son of a U.S. senator intentionally avoid reading any newspaper stories that dealt with his father's untimely death? Would a star player of a championship L.A. team really be able to evade interviews on the subject? Would such a popular athlete not have a good working relationship with the press, at least, as opposed to the fictional Ghost's distrust and avoidance of same?

How about a normal social life? Ghost exists in an unreal domestic vacuum on his Beverly Hills "estate," sheltered from the real world by devoted staff. Except for the occasional (gratuitous) threesome with relative strangers, he seems to have few "romantic" relationships. Little of this behavior jibes with his supposed background.

There is a great deal more that strains credulity, from minor details to major plot points. The reader is asked to suspend a great deal of disbelief en route to a grisly Grand Guignol finale that is unsatisfying on several levels.

The book's jacket copy promises "a surprise . . . that will simply astound every reader," but no revelation in this novel will come as much of a jolt to anyone who's read even a few mystery stories. Meanwhile, occasionally believable characters are made to act in an arbitrary fashion that squanders what credit they may otherwise have earned.

Particularly mystifying is Ghost's (and Rebecca's) blase reaction to a spectacular act of arson committed by Radio. This extremely antisocial act is treated as little more than an ill-advised prank. At one point, Ghost tells the mixed-up little fellow that Radio is fast becoming his "hero."

"Ghost" attempts much: explorations of the parent/child communion, musings on identity and the effects of fame, the contours of a mainstream novel and the suspense of a thriller. Its many effective passages make one hope Peter Barsocchini will craft a more plausible vehicle for his abilities.

'The young people looked at him with those tolerant smiles that mean "Isn't it nice you're up and around, but don't stay at the Stop sign too long" '.

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