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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Psychopath : JUGGLING THE STARS, A Novel of Menace By Tim Parks , (Grove Press: $18.95; 218 pp.)

April 11, 1993|Tim Appelo | Appelo is a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly.

In 1979, a student at a Tacoma, Wash., junior high wrote the following Social Studies report about a bright local collegian named Ted Bundy, then much in the news: "He was our babysitter. He was not a very nice babysitter. He would play games and scare us and then say they were just games." I was the Social Studies teacher, and I have never read a more insightful critique of the psychotic personality.

But Tim Parks' "Juggling the Stars" is a close second. Like the child Bundy babysat, Parks grasps the essence of the killer's madness, the obsession with domination games, the mimicry of normal human behavior and emotions. Parks' protagonist, a Cambridge-educated British psycho named Morris Duckworth, has more in common with Bundy: the loneliness of the long-distance social climber, an inability to tolerate his own well-earned failure in life, a cowardly, cagey, gradual approach to ultimate crime. Like Bundy, Morris grows from petty thief to sociopath, clever in short-term improvisation yet prone to breathtaking feats of self-defeating idiocy. And like Bundy, he only weeps for himself.

Morris teeters on the brink of mayhem while tutoring coddled upper-class twits in Italy. Sunk in self-pitying Raskolnikovian gloom, he hatches a plot to elope with a rich, Gina-Lollobrigidesque teenager from Verona--either that or to kidnap her, he's not quite sure which. Abhorring decisions, he prefers to mull things over endlessly. Heisting 17-year-old Massimina and spiriting her crosscountry is, he muses in compulsive congratulation, "The perfect synthesis of class warfare and womanizing." But Morris is no womanizer, and as snobs go, he's in a class by himself. Emotionally pistol-whipped by his virile philistine dad, clutched in bed to the abundant bosom of his smothering esthete mum, Morris grew up to be your basic depraved virgin.

To overwhelm his mighty misogynist defenses requires a virgin pure as driven snow, yet willing to drift. Voluptuous Massimina is slow even by Morris' students' standards; he can risk sending ransom notes to her folks and getting her face plastered all over every paper in the country, because she doesn't read the papers. He just has to keep her away from TV and improvise lies good enough to gull her until they reach a certain chapel, where the cash is to be taped under a particular pew.

Much as Morris loves Massimina's mind, what really wins him is when she explains that she's slept with her mother ever since her papa died when she was two--not kinkily, except in Morris's mind: "The thought of the two females going to bed together, the one old and heavy and stale, the other fresh, young and virgin, stirred a curious sensation in Morris that wasn't quite excitement, or quite repulsion, but as it were an intensification of interest pure and simple. He prided himself on his interest in life." Also on being "a slave to no animal urges"--though curious fancies do flit across his consciousness at odd moments. Moved by her allure, Morris thinks, "Perhaps it would be fun one day to try out one another's clothes. . . . "

Parks traps us inside this psycho's skull, rendering his ghastly innards better than Thomas Harris' "Silence of the Lambs" (though less well than his "Red Dragon," and infinitely less scarily than either). These guys aren't evil geniuses, just connivers, and their mental clockworks are always slipping cogs. Morris's desperate efforts to keep his plot ticking make for fascinating, horrifying, hilarious reading.

Parks' light tone and touch are utterly remote from generic killer fiction and psycho-bios. Devotees craving closeups of gore dripping viscously from ice picks onto severed limbs will be disappointed. "Juggling the Stars" is above all a droll book. When Morris extorts 400,000,000 lire from Massimina's parents, he considers donating 40,000,000 to charity; "the fact was," he thinks to himself, "he was a generous person, if only he had something to be generous with." Morris is forever reflecting on aspects of his character apt to be noted by future biographers. The book's wickedness at the expense of its own central character, cunning in his machinations to leave no clues yet clueless about his own motives, recalls Nabokov. The terrible mock honeymoon trek of Morris and Massimina is a bit like Humbert and Lolita's--except that Massimina, too dim to know she's in danger, is having the time of her life.

Morris's adventure is macabre fun orchestrated with immaculate precision. We sweat through each hairpin turn of events, and each seems spontaneous and in retrospect inevitable. Will Morris yield to his tender impulse to marry Massimina, pull off the scam, and live happily ever after as a plump plutocrat? How on earth will he continue to keep straight his diverse lies? And is it really wise for that horny vacationer they meet on the train to be ogling Massimina's tank top quite so lasciviously?

"Juggling the Stars" is Parks' first try at suspense writing. It's a killer.

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