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The Roe of Paris Trout : BROTHERLY LOVE By Pete Dexter (Random House: $22; 253 pp.)

October 06, 1991|RICHARD EDER

The sheen, the tension and the anguish of this first part is extra-ordinary. The wary transactions of the lumbering hoodlums, in the no man's land between Charley and Constantine, between loyalty and betrayal, are set out impercep-tibly and with striking effect. Such writing is hard to match, and in the remainder of the book Dexter doesn't manage to.

Peter's mother, a dim figure all along, has a mental breakdown. Phil takes Peter into his home and brings him up along with his own son, Michael. He tries to win his loyalty--at one point he takes him to a woman for his first sex--but never trusts him.

We follow the two boys as they grow up. Michael, fat and cowardly, turns into a vicious pervert whose power, first as his father's lieutenant and later as his successor, makes him a true monster. Peter, aloof and plucky, finds refuge working out in the boxing gym run by Nick, a decent, tough man who is fatherly with the boy and resolutely contemptuous of his uncle and cousin.

It is never more than a partial refuge. Michael, who hates Peter, claims him by kinship nonetheless, and makes him his henchman. Peter, until his final bloody revolt, works for his cousin in a state of emotional disassociation. He practices a despairing kind of protest by jumping from building roofs at not quite suicidal heights.

Dexter's account of Michael's and Peter's intertwined lives tends to straggle. The bombings and shootings, Michael's lethal efforts to consolidate his power, and Peter's half-escapes lack the superb narrative tension of the first part.

The problem, though, is not in the narratives but in the characters. Dexter makes the despicable Phil both oily--in a well-rendered bluff fashion--and execrable. Michael's monstrosity--he brutalizes a young groupie when he finds himself impotent with her, and terrorizes a loyal follower who is unable to pay a debt to him--is horrifically rendered.

But Michael and Phil--and, earlier, Constantine--possess the elements of evil while lacking its sweep. Paris Trout's horror attained a dimension of mystery; the viciousness of these three is spectacular but flat. And neither the hesitant innocence of Peter nor the rather overloaded nobility of Nick are enough, as counterforce, to lend it resonance.

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