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The Tower of Bowwow : OUTSIDE THE DOG MUSEUM, By Jonathan Carroll (Doubleday: $20; 243 pp.)

March 08, 1992|Ron Hansen | Hansen's most recent novel is "Mariette in Ecstasy." He teaches literature and writing at UC Santa Cruz

The hero of Jonathan Carroll's fascinating novel is Harry Radcliffe, a formerly crazy, twice-divorced, prize-winning architect who freely admits he is not a nice man but who has been called a genius so often that he's "been able to get away with an inordinate amount of rudeness, indifference, and plain bad manners." Shortly after his half-hearted return to sanity--his first insane act was the sudden purchase of 250 pencil sharpeners in the forms of famous buildings of the world--Harry is offered the job of designing a magnificent dog museum for a sultan named Mohammed who is "more or less God to the million and a half citizens of the Republic of Saru, somewhere in the Persian Gulf."

At first he isn't interested, but after seeing a man die humiliatingly in a Hollywood car wash, he fantasizes seeing "The Man Who Built the Dog Museum" on his own gravestone and likes the words enough to agree to the sultan's offer. And there is much for Harry to get away from, too. Venasque, the shaman who talked him out of his madness, is now just a voice in his head, an 8.3 earthquake has flattened his house in Santa Barbara, and Harry is torn between two lovers: Claire, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty who "often appeared on the verge of either levitating or drowning in the complexities of life," and Fanny, "a chain-smoking, eat-with-her-fingers realist who'd fooled (or frightened) a lot of people into thinking she was very tough."

Halfway through washing his hair one day--his hound Big Top in the shower with him--he imagines the shrine as it will be, "like a cross between a steel birthday cake and an old-time railroad steam engine standing on its nose. . . . All I could think of was a lavish, eccentric cathedral to some steel-cold deity: a nightmare prayer to God as inscrutable machine."

Creating that vision is the problem, for the project is fraught with difficulties. Sultan Mohammed is assassinated by his brother, Cthulu, and Saru is so near full-scale civil war that the museum site is moved from the Mideast to Zell am See in the Austrian Alps. Work is thwarted by inflated prices and the effort of communicating in Arabic, English and German. And the Sultan's son, Prince Hassan, is having an affair with Fanny and only forbears from having Harry killed because he fears the famous architect is a kind of jinn , those heavenly spirits that some Islamic scholars credit with the construction of the Egyptian Pyramids and the great Temple of Jerusalem.

Too much happens in this frenetic novel to be fully comprehensive in retelling its plot, and there is a breathlessness and disorder to it that frustrates easy summary. Characters are developed but dropped; themes are taken up but frittered away; thaumaturgy finishes off whenever dramaturgy fails; we are finally left with a chaos of half-formed notions of Harry Radcliffe stumbling toward God while trying to build his own Tower of Babel.

And yet there is a great deal to enjoy in "Outside the Dog Museum." Highly opinionated and obnoxious, Harry Radcliffe is hard to like as a first-person narrator, but he does seem to have a firsthand knowledge of international architecture, and he has a Wildean gift for aphorism: "Bananas are the only democratic food: Everyone looks ridiculous eating them." "Architecture is either creating space, or whittling it down." "Expectation is the best we can ever hope for." "In the City of Angels there is only rush-hour traffic, interrupted by lulls."

And Claire is a charming character--the pages freshen whenever she's in them. Wise, stalwart, sympathetic, Claire is "soft, but the soft of a panther's coat." She is, for Harry, the exemplar of all he blesses in women: "Spinners of countless webs, the world's best company, the only rabbits out of a hat, point-blank range, dreams-become-flesh most of us will ever know in this life."

Jonathan Carroll is a full-time novelist in Vienna, the American author of six previous books, including "Land of Laughs," "Voice of Our Shadow," "Bones of the Moon," "Sleeping in Flame," and "A Child Across the Sky." Author Pat Conroy has called him "a cult waiting to be born," and his latest book will only fortify that possibility. Eccentric, funny, ornery, inventive, faithful to no rules of fiction writing but his own, Carroll is as compelling and purposefully odd as a German Expressionist film.

"Outside the Dog Museum" is a book of distortions and disorientations, sorceries and enchantments that finally becomes a cautionary tale about the architecture of the soul.

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