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Literary Meltdown : ATOMIC CANDY by Phyllis Burke (Atlantic Monthly Press: $17.95; 300 pp.; 0-87113-274-5)

July 02, 1989|Deanne Stillman | Stillman is the author of "Girls in Suits at Lunch" (Dolphin Books/Doubleday). and

This novel may serve as the eulogy for what-if literature, a strange body of work that attempts to shed light on historical figures by having them interact with myriad versions of Jane and John Q.Public. The interaction somehow alters or amplifies the official record, causing the historical figure to pursue a more interesting or beneficial path. Thanks to the author, the world is a better place. Unfortunately, the contrivance is like decorating a house with mirrors: No matter how finely wrought, it inevitably leads back to itself. Moreover, the reader knows what really happened, or variations thereof. And if not, he does know that the author is "tricking" history to act a certain way. If the trick doesn't work, even a White House press release, for example, contains more truth than the poorly executed what-if novel, especially one in which the author assumes the role of social commentator.

The historical trick in "Atomic Candy" is the Albion Family, a Kennedy-like clan which rules Boston from the 1950s to the '70s. Its starring member is Kate Albion, JFK-fearing daughter of Democratic Party ward healer Martin Kelly (generally referred to as the Old Man). She smokes Marlboros; he spits. Further character development includes the fact that they both hate Richard Nixon. Kate hates Richard Nixon so much that one day, when watching Nixon's infamous "Checkers" speech, she goes into premature labor. Kate's leading man is husband Joe Albion (as in "Joe Albion did not do well in the heat."). He insists on calling the baby Marilyn, after the goddess of his dreams, Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn feels imprisoned by her beauty and grows up to join a lesbian sorority, ultimately saving the world from mass destruction by sneaking into the White House and running her fingers through Richard Nixon's hair (more on this later). Her father, now mayor of Boston, has a nervous breakdown when Marilyn Monroe dies, and Marilyn Albion forces him to confront reality by arranging a pilgrimage to Marilyn Monroe's crypt.

Here author Phyllis Burke makes one of her wildest attempts at satire: " Ich bein ein Marilyn," Marilyn tells her father, a line on which the author truly goes down swinging. But not for long! It turns out that during this scene, Joe Albion is dressed as the childhood icon of his daughter, Mr. Peanut. Other totems simmering in the author's cultural crockpot include Tupperware, Woolworth's, Wonderbread, Al Jolson, and Sputnik, as if the novel were conceived for those baby-boom zip-code clusters where everyone buys books and hates Richard Nixon.

Alas, even a demographer with scrambled surveys couldn't possibly have hatched the major obsession in "Atomic Candy." The story actually seems woven together by references to hair, raising the possibility that Burke received her literary training under a heat lamp at a beauty parlor. For instance, one character has "a defiant cowlick on the crown of his head that acted like a feeler." Then, several pages later, the author explains that "hair had a special place in Kate Albion's politics." Yet Burke goes on to invoke hair at least 40 more times, not from Kate's point of view, but from her own. There is the priest whose "hairs protruded from his ear like tentacles to search the soul." There is the waitress whose nose contains "dainty, powdered hairs." Richard Nixon is cited for having "bad hair"; later he laments John Kennedy's "damned hairdo." Ultimately when Marilyn Albion meets Richard Nixon, she "brushes an imaginary Jack-like lock of hair from his brow. . . ." Another character has "John the Baptist hair"; baby Marilyn "had a thick tuft of hair for a newborn"; and--get this!--"Betty Bloom laughed wildly as only redheaded women can." Burke's tangle of hair references is so dense that even a burnt-out image like, "The crowd parted Red Sea-style . . ." which is actually used twice, seems vivid.

What accounts for a book like this? Did the author want to catch Richard Nixon, "Candid Camera"-style, in the "hilarious act of being himself"? If so, to what end? All we find out is that he yearned for J.F.K.'s hair. Does that mean Nixon felt like less of a man and therefore bombed Cambodia? If so, how does that explain the equally bellicose Kennedy? The author never says. At one point, Marilyn Monroe tells Marilyn Albion to ". . . be careful of history. It's just some guy in a suit telling a story."

Maybe, but the only historical lesson we get from "Atomic Candy" is that somehow, it bypassed editorial checkpoints. At a time when publishing competes with the disappearing ozone layer for consumption of forests, I feel sorry for the trees pressed into service in this aimless effort. The good news is: No one has actually met the Albion Family, not even Richard Nixon.

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