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Temptations for a Brooklyn Saint : THE ANGEL CARVER; By Rosanne Daryl Thomas (Random House: $20; 259 pp.)

July 11, 1993|Francine Prose

Rosanne Daryl Thomas's first novel, "The Angel Carver," reminds one of certain votive paintings, altarpieces and retablos, in which the central figure--the hapless heroine or hero--is physically and perilously torn between innocence and sin: an angel pulls sweetly on one hand, while a devil yanks, rather less gently, on the other. To conjure up such images of metaphysical and moral acrobatics is, we assume, partly Thomas's intention. "The Angel Carver" is the sort of book in which we know right away who the beneficent spirit is, and who the evil demon is. The moral poles are very clear--and comfortingly distant--and no one does much mucking around in the gray area in between.

Our hero is Jack Standini, a humble shoe repairman who runs Reliable Repairs, "an underheated cavern of mint-painted tin" in the outer reaches of Brooklyn. though Jack's life is quiet, it hasn't been uneventful. In 1952, his beloved wife Angela took the subway into Manhattan to buy underwear--and never returned. "It wasn't that she'd died suddenly or been murdered or kidnaped. . . For years the police kept an eye out, but they didn't have evidence that she was dead. They didn't have evidence that she was alive." Since then Jack has filled his lonely leisure hours by carving wooden angels he keeps in a locked room.

Jack's fragile peace (or resignation) is disturbed by the appearance of Lucille Bixby, another lost soul with whom he sets up a nurturant, mistily romantic and platonic household. A guileless Pennsylvania girl, Lucille is a waitress Manque with dreams of stardom--most of which involve her (largely willed) resemblance to Marilyn Monroe. At a Marilyn look-alike contest at a local bar, Lucille and Jack meet Buddy Lomax, a programmer whose state-of-the-art computer, aptly named Hell, specializes in altering, manufacturing and falsifying pictorial images. As ill luck would have it, Buddy shares Lucille's obsession with marilyn Monroe, but mutated into a more sinister and sadistically literal-minded form. And it's in this arena--angels, real and faux, Brooklyn and Hell--that the unlikely trio enact their morality play of good and evil, trust and betrayal.

Despite the shodowy overtones, it's all extremely amiable, and consistent. There's a pleasantly elastic, springy quality to Thomas' imagination, and the plot line bounces along. At any number of critical junctures, flashes of wry humor and broadly realistic details (much like Brooklyn, this fairy tale has been settled by Koreans, Palestinians, Haitians and Albanians (ground the prevailing flightiness, and deftly rescue the proceedings from becoming irritatingly treacly and cloying. Indeed "The Angel Carver" is a good deal better than its publisher might suggest in comparing it to the film, "The Fisher King." The novel's not overtly preachy, and we're spared the literary equivalent (one shudders to think what it might be) of Robin Williams orating up in our faces.

The novel is easily readable, graced with a modest, unassuming charm. Its point of view and its sympathies could hardly be clearer, or less conflicted, and--even when Buddy Lomax is treating Lucille to a heavy dose of plastic surgery and suggesting she remove two ribs to, so to speak, cinch her resemblance to marilyn--it's merrily benign and unthreatening. No doubt many readers will be thrilled to discover a cast of characters whose problems aren't like ours--who worry that strangers will invade their secret cache of carved angels, and don't share our more mundane fears about unemployment, economic recession and myriad dreary physical, economic and spiratual woes that cloud our happy days.

Others may be less beguiled "The Angel Carver," it's certainly not Rosanne Daryl Thomas's fault that I happened to be reading her novel during the same week in which "Wild Palms" as being broadcast on television, nor that I happened to notice that both the book and the mini-series were essentially cartoon-like entertainments in which the true and the good-the representatives and the forces of individualism- are pitted against the creeping evils of the technologically altered visual image. Shockingly (to me) and for he first time I can recall in my so-called adult life, reading seemed ever so slightly tinged with drudgery, compared to the more engaging rewards of watching network TV. "Wild palms" struck me as highly inventive, complex, strongly plotted and imaginative; beside it, the novel appeared merely whimsical a little fatigued and pale.

It may be simply that I am the sort of person who has always liked fairy tales to be dark; I prefer Grimm and Andersen, in all their gory splendor, to the sanitized and cheery Disney versions. Or it may be that--despite its humor and appealingly offhand tone, despite Thomas's obvious talent--"The Angel Carver" just doesn't have enough substance. Though we're glad to spend some time with its characters, we're finally unmoved by their fates. The fairy tales that continue to delight and intrigue us have layers and depths; like "The Angel Carver," they're fun--but they add up to something more serious. That struggle between the angel and devil, as the old retablos make clear, nearly always involves some truly painful pulling and tugging.

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