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All That Glitters : BAY OF ARROWS, By Jay Parini (Henry Holt: $22.50; 384 pp.)

August 23, 1992|D.M. Thomas | Thomas's latest novel, "Flying in to Love," about the assassination of JFK, is due from Charles Scribner's Sons in October

Jay Parini begins his new novel with a short scene richly evoking the arrival of Columbus in the New World. A cacique and his high priest gaze in awe at the three caravals standing in the ultramarine bay. They are ancestors, says the high priest, they are returning to claim kinship. The cacique, deeply impressed by these words, resolves to make the supreme sacrifice of his only daughter. The beautiful black-eyed maiden is bathed and anointed, then tied naked to a stake. Columbus and his officers at last wade ashore, kissing their wooden crosses. Columbus stops a respectful distance from the girl, entranced. He moves ceremoniously toward her . . .

"His breath was foul and hot as he swayed above her; his right hand reached toward her face, and he pinched the gold ring in her nose between his thumb and forefinger.

" 'It's gold,' he said, turning to the men behind him, his eyes peppery and red. 'The ring is gold!' "

It is a fictive moment which, with superb economy and poetry, captures the essential sordidness and contempt for humanity that characterized the Columbian venture. A moment later--at the start of Chapter 2--we have: " 'It's gold!' Geno cried, sitting up in bed." Whereupon his wife Susan whispers to him to go back to sleep.

Geno (Christopher Genovese) is a 42-year-old college professor in Vermont. He is a poet, currently (and for many years) writing a long poem about his almost-namesake. Susan is a writer of fiction. They have two sons. Each also has a psychoanalyst. They are, in fact, an admirably characteristic, liberal-minded, educated American couple of 500 years post-Columbus. "Bay of Arrows" interweaves the story of their moderately muddled lives with short vignettes from the life of Columbus.

In the hands of a lesser writer this technique could have soon lost its interest and come to seem tiresome and overstrained. Parini, however, accomplishes his own voyage of discovery with never-failing grace and lightness of touch. Geno does not exactly pull the gold ring in his wife's nose, but he is guilty, in his own way, of diminishing women. He goes to a student dormitory one night, feeling randy, and seduces a girl who has been sending him notes about Virginia Woolf all semester. He's accused of sexual harassment when his final grade (B+) displeases her; it is an unjust accusation, yet Geno has a moment of tormenting revelation, late in the book, when he remembers the scene in the dormitory precisely, and he acknowledges to himself that he took advantage of his status. His wife, hurt but forgiving, feels that she is invisible to him.

Just as Columbus is granted the miracle of sighting land, when all seemed hopeless, Geno has the miracle of a letter announcing that he's been awarded a 'genius' grant of half-a-million dollars, to do with as he pleases. He takes his family off to an inlet called the Bay of Arrows, in the Dominican Republic. Geno and the Genoese, Columbus, are moving ever closer. For the Bay of Arrows is where Columbus first met resistance--Taino Indians driving him away with their primitive arrows.

Geno builds a "simple" American house, with the aid of peasant labor. Susan, ashamed to have shrieked at the sight of a hand-sized spider on the pillow when she wakes, meditates herself in the best New Age way into loving spiders. The boys steal her shortwave radio (she listens only to the BBC and other European services) to take with them into their secret den. And Augusto, their friendliest, most trusted servant, is caught at night with the radio in his hands. He runs away, and Geno reports him to the police. Augusto spends weeks in jail--long after the boys have confessed: Augusto was in the process of returning the radio, not taking it away. Geno has reacted in a typical colonialist way, and the betrayed villagers turn their backs on him. It's time to go home, back to Vermont. The small empire, like the vast one in Columbus's wake, has failed the test of humanity.

Meanwhile the Japanese have brought their caravels, exact replicas of Columbus's, into the Bay of Arrows for the quincentennial. And again the natives repel them, seeming to believe they have driven off Columbus himself. One of the most terrifying scenes relates the story of an American professor writing a book on the cruel dictator, Trujillo; he is kidnapped, brought to Dominica, and finally lowered, inch by inch, into a vat of boiling water. Parini moves effortlessly from ironic humor to absolute evil.

Occasionally his style dips into a sentimental, cloying mode: "She bloomed in his hands like a spring bough of lilies dipped into a tub of warm water and forced, prematurely, to radiate color, light, and smell." But the novel's almost 400 pages fly by with almost too little effort having to be made by the reader. If that is a fault, it is one that some recent writers of the Great American Novel might envy. At the end of the deceptively easy voyage, Parini has found gold.

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