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Apocalypse, From 'Ace' to 'Zap' : MISTER TOUCH, By Malcolm Bosse (Ticknor & Fields: $21.95; 502 pp.)

May 12, 1991|David Chute | Chute is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

We have before us a post-apocalyptic epic about a New York street gang that migrates to Arizona to form the nucleus of a new society.

The new 502-page Malcolm Bosse novel, "Mister Touch," is packed with invented words and social concepts, and it comes complete with a 20-page glossary--alphabetical from "Ace" to "Zap"--to help us keep all the eccentric characters straight. Although it's supposedly an adventure story, "Mister Touch" gives us an awful lot to absorb, and it never gets an easy or compelling rhythm going. Bosse may be striving to give us more than a fast read, but in the end I think he gives us rather less.

To its credit, "Mister Touch" isn't as plot-fixated as one expects in a novel with such an extreme premise; it's surprisingly gentle and atmospheric, as if Bosse wants to bring this purged, empty America to life and then just live in it for a while. In the first of his three leisurely sections, "The Skulls," Bosse is setting the scene, and he's very attentive to the characters' interactions and to the textures of the handmade neo-primitive society they've cobbled together in a Manhattan apartment building.

The city, with its roving bands of predatory wild dogs (and wild humans), is proving entirely too crowded and confining for these would-be rebuilders of civilization, and Arizona is an attractive alternative because so many survivors suffer from wheezing respiratory ailments. Many also are blind or only partially sighted, including the title character, the former Wall Street bond trader who has become the Skulls' reluctant guru.

In the long second section, "On the Road," Bosse finds drama (and occasionally comedy) in placing his New York street characters in incongruous "growth situations" in the wild countryside, then stepping back to watch their earnest, floundering responses. This "second act" also is a mournful tour of a barren nation full of deserted landmarks and deposed icons, from Nashville to the Texas Schoolbook Depository. In the third and shortest section, the always tough but now tempered characters try to learn from the devastation they've seen, to pull things together on a more secure foundation.

There are too many echoes in "Mister Touch," and too few surprises. The publishers hopefully propose "A Clockwork Orange" and "Riddley Walker" as high-art antecedents, but one of Bosse's own characters is closer to the mark when she recalls George Miller's sci-fi action film, "The Road Warrior": "And now here we are," she says, "living that film." (They are living a few other films, too, including Walter Hill's 1979 gang-odyssey rave-up, "The Warriors"; I think I could even make a case for a thematic link between the last page of "Mister Touch" and the final frames of "RoboCop.")

Observant readers will certainly notice several points of close resemblance with Stephen King's meganovel "The Stand": the decimation of mankind by germs rather than nukes, the cross-country trek, the hot and dusty Southwestern finale, the nuts-and-bolts sequences of forging a new nation-state in the wilderness. These similarities are, I think, too distinct for comfort.

"Mister Touch," with its often low-key, soft-voiced approach, reads at times like a domestic drama set among a bunch of homeless people, and told entirely from their deluded, self-mythologizing point of view. I'm not at all confident that's what Malcolm Bosse had in mind, however.

More likely this is just the best-seller-pulp soul of the novel showing through: bogus "ordinary" characters who never actually existed on this or any other ordinary planet, pumped up into cardboard archetypes.

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