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Up in Old Flames : THE KEYS TO TULSA by Brian Fair Berkey (Atlantic Monthly Press: $18.95; 398 pp.; 0-87113-314-8)

June 25, 1989|Jesse Sublett | Sublett, a native of Austin, Tex., is a rhythm and blues bassist and writer of hardboiled novels, screenplays and short stories. His first novel, "Rock Critic Murders" (Viking), will be followed next year by "The Big Hurt" (Viking). and

A week in the life of Tulsa native Richter Boudreau is not a pretty thing. Waking up bleary, bruised and sweaty in the midst of a dry spell in his sex life ("he'd forgotten what it was like to be within sniffing distance."). Boudreau starts off a humid Thursday morning trying to remember what went wrong.

As he replays the events of the prior evening's aborted one-night stand, we find that the power company cut off his electricity at a crucial moment. Searching for candles, Boudreau blunders into a stud, the skeletal remains of a deserted remodeling job. His screams of pain send his date into hysterics. Stoned, alone and naked in the dark in a weirdo's farmhouse, the call of nature sounds too much like death: The date is shot. This, it turns out, is a recurring theme. Boudreau is constantly colliding painfully with his own debris.

First-time novelist Brian Fair Berkey seems to have all the elements of a classic modern noir in place: bad sex, big debts, too much booze, too many drugs, good families, bad girls. Writing as if the ghosts of Jim Thompson and James H. Cain are perched on his shoulders, Berkey's Boudreau blasts a nihilistic path across a stark plain of gritty irony and twisted legacies, a dust devil picking up speed. But where is he going?

His friends only fuel the fire. High school buddy Ronnie Stover, a smack shooting, speed snorting, pistol packing Vietnam vet, is married to the former Vicky Michaels, another of Boudreau's old flames. Vicky uses Boudreau in her plan to get her pathetic, booze-bloated brother, Keith (also one of Boudreau's pals), cut off from the Michaels family fortune, leaving Ronnie high and dry in the bargain. But Ronnie has a plan to blackmail the son of another wealthy Tulsa family for the murder of a black prostitute. The killer's father, Horace Shaw, a good old boy Nazi fundamentalist, has already fired the opening salvos of the coming race war.

Central to the extortion scheme is Cherry, a junkie topless dancer who witnessed the murder. Boudreau knows better than to offer this endangered creature a place to stay, but all it takes is a formulaic tease during her stage act and once again, Boudreau follows his erection through the gates of doom.

Boudreau loses his position as a film teacher soon after one of his students, another dissatisfied lover, tries to run over him in the university parking lot. But he shows little remorse when he loses his job at the Tulsa Journal; it was interfering with his substance abuse, anyway.

Haunted by the lingering presence of his late grandfather, a veteran of Oklahoma back-room politics who fell victim to Bible Belt hypocrisy, Boudreau, too, seems a victim of changing times. When he finally spills the story of murder and white supremacist conspiracy to his cohort at the Tulsa Journal, the cohort replies: "You know what you did, Boudreau? You died and went back to the sixties."

By this juncture, he is no more capable of helping gouge out a sliver of justice than he is of reporting to work on time, neat, clean and sober. The only moments of cheer in his protracted flame-out are provided by the macabre slapstick horrors of embarrassment that he inflicts upon his mother in front of her country club friends.

Berkey's voice is as humid with metaphor, nascent tones, and onomatopoeia as this tale is bereft of hope. Boudreau's druggie companions talk as if their mouths were full of rubber bands (" Rich ter? I can get us hap-py?" "snukking" cocaine phlegm down the backs of their throats. He drives an Austin Healy, a black hole of repair bills, which constantly, as his life, slips out of gear. Waking up from a drunken stupor afloat an inflatable raft, Boudreau falls into Keith's pool and realizes he's in the deep end. No kidding.

A wash in chemicals, booze and self-pity, Boudreau is actually the most sharply drawn villain in this tale. His dissolution is all too real--you can practically smell the sour breath and feel the clammy drug sweat--but the blackmail caper and the white supremacist remain shadowy and half-baked.

This is clearly not a caper novel; perhaps the drug and alcohol problems are supposed to be symptoms of a greater evil. Does it matter? Boudreau makes it difficult for us to give a damn, and the 1981 setting (when it wasn't quite so unhip to be irresponsible about sex and drugs) makes this gonzo noir seem unhip and ugly.

A lot of talent was used to bring this character to life, but to little purpose. Let's hope that next time, Berkey creates a no-hope hero armed with bullets that go somewhere besides his own foot.

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