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Brought to You by the Holy Ghost : LIVING IN LITTLE ROCK WITH MISS LITTLE ROCK By Jack Butler (Alfred A. Knopf: $25; 655 pp.)

July 25, 1993|Frank Levering | Levering, who farms in Virginia, is co-author of "Simple Living: One Couple's Search for a Better Life" (Penguin).

Little Rock, Ark., 1981: As Ronald and Nancy fry the big fish in Washington, Bill and Hillary scheme to reclaim the governor's mansion that they have lost to hidebound Republicans. Even as portrayed in "Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock"--an exuberant, newfangled kind of novel with one of those sexy backwater titles--it's "a boring time" for the country, "a pseudo fake '50s rerun." But down in Little Rock--"the 96th-largest city in the country, which is to say it's a small town"--the future leader of the free world (and her husband) are anything but bored, schmoozing it up with just about everybody your mama warned you about: good ole boys, 'necks (rednecks), Christianoids (Bible-brained fundamentalists) and caspers (whites who patronize blacks).

Then there's the other, less-predictable side of this fictionalized Rock: blacks like Lafayette Thompson, a former Razorback football star at the University of Arkansas, now a hotshot attorney having an affair with a duplicitous white attorney; and Charles and Lianne Morrison, like the Clintons mozzles (modern Southern liberals)--supporters of "aid to education, the ERA, the arts, desegregation and a lower tax burden on the poor. . . ." As the Reagan Revolution begins, Little Rock is a town where new and old Souths collide like churning air masses, where a Creation Science bill passes the state legislature (God 1, Darwin 0), where even Bill Clinton must occasionally choose sides.

Enter Conway, Ark., writer Jack Butler, a poet, novelist and short story writer with as razzle-dazzle an imagination as the coaches who cook up the trick plays ("Go, Hogs!") for the Razorbacks football team. This time, Butler dares to dream in the Twilight Zone of metafiction, a place where linear narrative meets the Tao of physics, where realism, fantasy, and (in Butler's case) science fiction go hog wild in a happy-hour orgy at the neighborhood bar. Where Bill Clinton (Is he the real Bill Clinton? Only his hairdresser knows for sure) shows up at a birthday party, sitting "in the corner gently hooting his sax." Where Butler himself makes a cameo appearance, playing himself as a gently satirized poet, shooting pool and talking drunken metaphysics with his fictional protagonist, Charles Morrison. And where the narrator of the tale is none other than that folksy Shade-About-Town, the Holy Ghost.

(The novel's show-stopping first lines: "Howdy, I'm the Holy Ghost. Talk about your omniscient narrators.")

For all the metafictional fizz, what the Ghost narrates is a kind of Southern-fried "Bonfire of the Vanities," a Dickensian barbecue of politics, race, religion, sex, corruption and murder that skewers Little Rock society without regard to race, religion or social class. And--as if that isn't enough to chew on--the backbone of the novel is a heartbreaking love story, told primarily from the male point of view, a dissection of a bittersweet marriage that reads like an epitaph to self-centered, '80s-style romance.

Charles Morrison fancies himself "the Atticus Finch of Arkansas." Harvard-educated, elegant to a fault and still in his early 40s, he's a prominent, liberal attorney in an obscure, conservative state, pro-black, pro-women, pro-Clinton and--an avowed atheist--passionately anti-Christianoid in the Creation Science battle. As an adopted son, he's also inherited a fortune and lives the life of wealth and privilege--with a live-in cook and gardener--in the mansion built by his father.

Charles's partner in Golden Coupledom is Lianne Weatherall Morrison, a former Miss Little Rock and locally famous television newscaster, recently retired and "beginning to show her age." Abused as a child of 'necks and unable to bear children, she's boot-strapped her way up with brains and charisma, landed the Big Fish and now throws herself into painting classes and liberal causes. But Lianne still wrestles the old demons of guilt and suspicion in narcissistic therapy sessions, and in her marriage, is buffeted about by every wind of emotion, and leans on Charles--too hard--for her daily ration of self-worth.

From their opening scene together--an acrimonious shootout when Charles arrives home from work, wanting sex, wanting to be taken care of after a hard day of peak job performance as head of his law firm--to the final, tragic hours, Butler captures all the stormy midlife highs and lows that wrack this relationship. Though the details of material wealth are titillating, what is haunting about Charles and Lianne's marriage is how desperately they want to strip away all the layers of privilege and simply love each other, make sacrifices and be companions for each other. Butler's prose is particularly compelling when, in the voice of the Holy Ghost, he's inside Charles' head. "The question, he saw now, was simply whether he was man enough for love."

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