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IN BRIEF

Fiction

February 09, 1992|MICHAEL HARRIS

LUCY BOOMER by Russell Hill (Ballantine: $18; 192 pp.) . "No weird stuff, OK?" a hippie hitchhiker named Ahna tells a history teacher named Jack Rabbit in the truck stop where Jack has paused after kidnaping a 93-year-old woman named Lucy Boomer from a nursing home in Tarzana. Lucy, it seems, has worked for--and says she slept with--five Presidents, from Teddy Roosevelt to Herbert Hoover. Her diaries could resuscitate Jack's fading academic career, but before she'll hand them over, she wants him to drive her back to Iowa to die.

What happens when all three hit the American road, however, is beyond weird. Call it downright mystical. Lucy dies, all right, but before she does, something of the extraordinary life she's lived begins to seep through the boundaries that separate her from Jack and Ahna. They speak words that seem to come from her mind, remember scenes from her past, even feel with her skin. She gives them the courage to "do something unspeakable," to salvage the years that remain.

Russell Hill is a fine writer. He deals with such evanescent subject matter as a novelist should: by surrounding it with realistic detail, by nailing it down with sharp images and, especially, sounds. The smoggy torpor and menace of Los Angeles, the storms and silences of the plains, the threadbare hotels of Midwestern towns with their odor of "old salesmen"--all this is vividly rendered. And Hill is equally sensitive in treating an issue rare in fiction--the sexuality of the very old. "Lucy Boomer" shows how much a little novel can do.

The only regret is that Lucy, the best character in the book--potentially a great character--must be presented as she is: as a husk of a body, a handful of memories of girlhood on a farm, and a single page of her diaries, about an escapade with one of the Presidents at a carnival in Rio. Those diaries beckon us--the big novel hiding behind the little one. Whether Hill could have written it, who knows? Lucy did.

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