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BOOK REVIEW : We'll Probably See This One at the Movies : FEARLESS by Rafael Yglesias ; Warner Books $18.95, 320 pages


A crippled jumbo jet tumbles through the sky. Passengers Max Klein and Jeff Gordon estimate their worth upon death--specifically the benefits their wives and children will receive--including the bonus to be collected since the tickets were charged on an American Express Gold Card.

In his new novel "Fearless," author Rafael Yglesias bravely tackles a frighteningly hackneyed topic: the crash of a jumbo jet and the trauma experienced by two of the plane's 98 survivors. The story begins just minutes before the aircraft's third engine, situated in the tail section, fails.

Farther back in the plane sit the tenacious working-class Carla and her precious toddler, Leonardo. Unlike the two prescient yuppies up front, she believes that the plane has merely hit a patch of turbulence; the thought of real trouble does not even cross her mind, we are told (unconvincingly).

The jolt awakens her son, however, and Carla spends the next critical minutes trying to calm him. She can't adjust his seat belt, and the harness nearly strangles the boy as the plane drops again.

By this time Max, who has been in therapy partly to overcome his fear of flying, accepts that he's going to die. At peace, he helps an injured flight attendant and worries about a young boy who is traveling alone. While the usually self-absorbed Max is busy coming of age, Jeff soils his pants. Max makes the critical decision to sit with the 10-year-old Byron ("like the poet"), to comfort him. By abandoning his shaken and pleading partner, it turns out, Max also escapes the death seat.

A flight attendant helps Carla again with the recalcitrant seat belt, finally telling the mother to hold the child in her lap. The aircraft's convulsions increase, as does Carla's awareness of the potential danger. Yet remarkably, at the final moment of descent, the runway appears within reach, and so does the prospect of a happy landing and a speedy ending.

No such luck.

Max escapes unscathed from the burning wreck and manages to rescue several others. This marks the beginning of his real journey. Unfortunately, his trip is as choppy and as nauseating as an especially rough flight.

In short order he leaves the airport, rents a car, returns to his alma mater, takes LSD, rents a hotel room and sleeps with his now matronly college girlfriend. He doesn't tell his wife he's alive.

Remarkably, he is tracked down by the airline personnel who debrief him, give him a physical and then offer him a lift home to New York. They've told his wife that he's alive and well.

Back in Manhattan, Max continues to act bizarrely. Is he a victim of trauma or the author's ineptitude? He closes his second-rate design business. Thanks to the promise of a hefty settlement from the airline, he'll finally be free to find the real Max Klein.

That's if he can escape the kindness of strangers. Hounded by the appreciative folks whose lives he "saved," Max shucks the media's attention and the title of "Good Samaritan." Charity, he realizes, begins at home, and he can hardly play redeemer to the world when he's about to trash his own marriage in the name of self-awareness.

Meanwhile Carla, who has lost her child and must be pulled from the wreckage, abandons her pull-up-your-socks attitude and retreats from those around her--her macho husband, hovering mother and interfering aunts and uncles. She proves to be the author's most appealing character.

The hairpin turns this tale takes are calculated so that Max and Carla can reach out and touch each other--not in the aisle of the aircraft or at the crash site, but months later in that small and intimate town called Manhattan.

Eventually, through the machinations of the airline's psychologist, Max agrees to talk with the now despondent Carla. The book jacket proclaims that Carla and Max "teach each other how to live again." Wouldn't it be pretty to think so.

Yglesias never loosens Max from the two-dimensional surface of paper and ink to create a guy the reader can care about or maybe learn something from. Even the well-formed Carla cannot compensate for the loopy story line and poor writing, which buries rather than exposes the characters.

But maybe this is more of a film treatment than a novel. You can see the crash sequence; the minutiae surrounding Carla's and Max's lives are vividly drawn. And indeed the publisher has already announced that there is a movie in the making.

To the author's credit, "Fearless" tackles scary questions, but whatever answers Yglesias had in mind end up as twisted as the wreckage of the DC-10.

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