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The 99-Cent Opera : PIRATE JENNY by April Bernard (W. W. Norton: $18.95; 240 pp.)

September 02, 1990|Ursula Hegi | Hegi is the author of "Floating in My Mother's Palm," "Intrusions" and "Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories." and

Connie Frances LaPlante gets what she wants: She cajoles, blackmails, threatens and dreams herself out of the polluted mill town where the river is the color of lemonade. She feels trapped between the luxuries she craves--silks and silver and crystal--and the reality of her room with its cheap paneling, limp curtains and battered lampshade.

Her parents are ineffective: Her mother is a helpless alcoholic who waits for men to rescue her, and her father is a con man who has tutored Connie in the art of manipulation. "The con is the best, the tops, he's the primo artisto, honey pie. . . . A con don't make it look easy. A con don't make it look at all. Inside . . . that's the one place you hear the cheering. . . . You're always onstage, but only you know it." Ambitious, and yet strangely passive, Connie is willing to play that role and invents her own props and lines.

Ever since she was 8, she has stolen books and records from the town library, feeling absolutely entitled to collect them in her room. One day she steals the record set of "The Threepenny Opera," lured by the "sinful looks of the striped skirts and rouged faces on the cover." Intoxicated by the music and the German lyrics, Connie identifies with Pirate Jenny, who dreams of taking passionate revenge for every humiliation and deprivation she has suffered. "It was like absolutely nothing she had ever heard before--a raggedy, wild sound that went deep inside."

But it is just that passion that is the weak link between Connie--who changes her name to Jenny--and the blazing heroine in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's haunting fantasy of crime and sex in Soho at the end of the 19th Century. Although Connie's metamorphosis is fascinating, she lacks Jenny's fire. Like a sleepwalker, she drifts through a succession of scenes that could have been far more dynamic and believable if April Bernard had tapped deeper into Brecht's Jenny and developed that raw craving for power and revenge in Connie.

However, the idea of a contemporary "Threepenny Opera," where the outlaws are the heroes, is intriguing. Bernard is successful in shifting the gist of the Brecht/Weill musical fantasy into the 20th Century. Connie feels as entitled as Mack the Knife to own whatever "her own dreadful hunger" leads her to. Like Mack and his bride, Polly, she takes risks with the certainty that she will not be caught, and goes after the possessions of others as if claiming what rightfully should have been hers.

She cuts herself free from all connections with her family and town by wiping her fingerprints from every surface in the house and destroying her childhood pictures and report cards: "It felt exhilarating to see the past disappear." She brings herself into being as Jenny Freuhoffer, a German immigrant, and--imitating Marlene Dietrich's movie accent--absconds to New York.

The strongest writing in Bernard's fast-paced novel occurs in the passages when Connie crosses into her fantasy, believing that, indeed, she is Jenny. Then her obsession with the character transcends her costumes and makeup. Bernard could have gone further with this transformation, but instead she chooses to show Connie in a series of adventures without sufficiently exploring the internal process that leads up to her actions. As a result, Jenny is revealed too slowly, and I found myself yearning for introspection and, above all, impact.

In New York, Connie works for an eccentric Russian family whose wealth was launched with stolen jewels. From the matriarch, Netta Kovalenko, she learns what she can and manipulates the older woman into trusting her. A diligent apprentice, she woos Netta with loyalty that tapers off as the power tilts in Connie's favor. But the price for her con is a growing numbness that erases any early traces of vulnerability and finally reduces her to a character who is heartless, cruel and relentlessly self-serving.

She has contempt for most people but admires those who have power over her. Except for a loose friendship based on shared gossip with a gay man, Connie keeps herself distant until she falls in love with a man who, of course, belongs to someone else. Ironically, she exploits her feelings, mind and body in a far more damaging way than she could possibly exploit any of her victims.

In an irrevocable act of cruelty against her mother, Connie enforces her separation from her past; yet, without that connection there is something so rootless about her that she disappears into a sequence of roles until it becomes evident that she needs to find a new place in the world to attach herself to. It seems inevitable that this would be Germany--her homeland, Bernard calls it.

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