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Newspaper Clippings : LOVE & OBITS, By John Ed Bradley (Henry Holt: $21.95; 276 pp.)

February 09, 1992|Tim Appelo | Appelo is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly

Joseph Burke, the hero of John Ed Bradley's new novel, "Love & Obits," is 33, the same age Jesus was when he got crucified. Burke has his own cross to bear: After his sleazy romance with a distinguished senator's neglected wife was splashed across the gossip columns, he became the laughing stock of the D.C. press corps. For consorting with a news source, he's been banished by the editor of the illustrious Washington Herald from the Page 1 fast track to the obituaries desk, known to its denizens as Death Row. Now he squanders his life waiting for someone interesting to die and vainly hoping the copy desk won't kill his finely wrought final paragraphs.

John Ed Bradley knows all about the innards of the big-city newspaper, being a reformed Washington Post sportswriter. Burke's bulldog of a boss, a legendary friend of presidents with a "chiseled prehistoric jaw," is evidently a takeoff on the Post's Ben Bradlee. But "Love & Obits" is only tangentially about newspapers. In fact, it's all tangents: From the outset, its story lines diverge vigorously, like the mad harriers in Monty Python's 50-Yard Dash for People With No Sense of Direction.

In the opening chapter, it appears that Bradley has something more straightforward in mind. Burke is assigned to interview the next of kin of the deceased Louie Vannoy, Washington insider ("Back during Watergate," says one character, "guess who went to Louis Vannoy when Deep Throat refused to talk?"). Pneumatic and nubile, Laura Vannoy turns out to be the tipsiest of widows, concupiscently intent on sitting down in Burke's lap while he's still standing up. We've heard that siren song before, in genre fiction from Raymond Chandler to "Chinatown."

But Bradley swiftly loses interest in telling newspaper noir stories and lurches into a sprawling ensemble drama. The contestants for our increasingly bewildered attention pop up and vanish at odd intervals, almost at random. First comes the girl of Burke's nightmares, cineaste Naomi Richard (pronounced "the French way, Ree-shar"), who once expertly fellated him in the Herald stairwell; they exchanged vows, but she viciously ditched him for zillionaire movie-mag magnate Hans Verdooth.

More cartoony zanies are forthcoming. One is Burke's dad, so grievous at having killed Burke's mom in a car wreck that he unconvincingly fakes paraplegia (but all too realistically simulates incontinence). Next comes Burke's celibate, obese colleague Alfred Giddins, a Pulitzer Prize-winner sent to Death Row for fabricating quotes.. Giddins is outgrossed by the evil crone, Andrea Troy, whose dog, Balls, is named after Balzac and whose gossip column caused Burke's fall. Most of the interesting events in these people's lives take place before the book begins; there is too much clumsy reminiscent exposition and too little breaking news.

The book is disappointing, considering the hefty reputation Bradley won with the novels "Tupelo Nights" and "The Best There Ever Was," but it isn't strictly bad news. Bradley's imagination is so strong and strange he often strikes notes resonant of the greatest, scariest newspaper novel ever written, Nathanael West's "Miss Lonelyhearts." He shares a bit of West's despairing hilarity, his bent for sinister slapstick. What he lacks is West's absolute control of plot, character development and prose style. His grotesques go their own ways; there's a lunatics-have-taken-over-the-asylum feel to "Love & Obits," as opposed to the precisely orchestrated chaos of "Lonelyhearts."

Another big problem is Bradley's tendency to strain credulity. Often, his characters' repartee comes off as arch, artificial, and some of the scenes are not so much weird as contrived. When Leander, the polyglot, polymorphous-perverse photographer invites his pals to a slide show of his heart's life history a la Jack Nicholson in "Carnal Knowledge," the revelations seem implausible. We learn, for instance, that his favorite catch phrase, "Ain't nothin' but a thang," was first uttered by a Vermont hick upon helping the child Leander dig his frozen-dead father out of a snowdrift. Bradley fails to convince us that the guy would really say that in his situation, and as a symbol for emotional numbness it is much too clanky.

The hero's ex-wife Naomi rings untrue, too. She tells Burke she left him because "in the 18 months they'd been married he'd never (noticed) that one of her breasts was smaller than the other. And he was supposed to be such a great reporter!" She's serious when she says this. She also complains that he never inquired about the regularity of her bowel movements. It seems to me that she is not a character at all but a jokey locus of masculine resentments.

Not that there's anything wrong with politically incorrect depictions of women. I don't mind that Bradley meanly mocks the aging Andrea Troy's droopy boobs, her "buttocks thick and dimpled as Sunday hams," her revolting snobbery and crass appetites. It's just that she is nothing but the sum of her shameful parts--she has no room to move as a character. She cannot surprise us. Bradley would have done a better job on the entwined subjects of sex and death if he had troubled to explore the hearts of women, too. But in "Love & Obits," only the men have souls.

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