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BOOK REVIEW : The One That Got Away (From Its Author) : CUERVO TALES By Robert Roper ; Ticknor & Fields; $19.95, 195 pages


"Cuervo Tales" is a strange book that seems at first to want to be one thing but changes course midstream and ends up being far more interesting, and even profound, than one at first expects.

The untitled prologue promises a series of rather predictably bittersweet stories about the inhabitants of Cuervo, a town in the coastal mountains just south of San Francisco. We are given background details such as that "deserters from the provincial army, fugitives, cutthroats, cutpurses, trappers, wanderers, and miscellaneous misfits constituted the male population before about 1849," and that "those few archival references to the place . . . all have a tone of frank distaste."

After the reader is further informed that Cuervo was notorious during the '60s for its residents' drug-taking, one is prepared for a wild and crazy romp, a la T.C. Boyle. It's been done before, but it's not an unpleasant prospect.

Instead, the book takes a very different direction, one which makes the prologue and the title "Cuervo Tales" seem deliberately misleading or just tacked on.

The first "tale" introduces us to our protagonist, Abel Richards, and the tone at once is elegiac, and psychologically astute. Richards is having a romantic picnic with a real estate saleswoman with whom, it becomes clear, he's not in love. He's still mourning his broken marriage, we gather, and this is the first person with whom he's had social intercourse in some time. The episode ends inconsequentially, and we never hear of this woman again.

In the next section, Richards has his 18-month-old daughter from the failed marriage visiting him, and he sits up late into the night, listening to the creaks and groans of this house up in the woods.

In succeeding chapters, we meet Richards' brother, who is a drug dealer from Maui; a neighbor who grows marijuana for a living, who persuades Richards to grow some as well; and, in passing, a brother-in-law who sells drugs part time. All three of these characters are fairly swashbuckly, and although one of them ends up an addict, this happens far away, offstage.

Nothing is said of any anti-Vietnam War sentiment, or any particular feelings about the social crises of those times. No tears for Bobby Kennedy or Martin Luther King, no sick thrills via the Manson gang, no mixed emotions and confusion regarding Patty Hearst and the SLA.

And yet--by the end of the book, all of this blinkered history, along with Richards' unthinking admiration for the near-indistinguishable drug dealers, his own foray into marijuana harvesting--it all plays into what becomes a very damning, terrifically subtle portrayal of a selfish, egotistical man who has received love, even devotion, and given nothing in return.

When we meet Richards' ex-wife, Jackie, it is clear that, from Richards' point of view, we are meant to disapprove of her. She's drinking wine in the morning, the house is a terrible mess, and she's living with a has-been screenwriter who has a fake British accent. As the narrative goes on, however, we see how Richards emotionally bullied her into letting his girlfriends live with them, into participating in a menage a trois , and so on, until she has become quite burned out.

Richards has mumbled to himself that he's treated her badly, and that he's responsible for the condition she's in, but his lamentations come to seem self-pitying and self-centered, striking a pose, the more we get to know him throughout the book.

What really triggers a re-examination of Richards' character is the unexpected intrusion, halfway through, of a new character, a Belgian woman with whom he spent the summer in Europe 18 years before. She now reveals that he is the father of her son.

The rest of the book takes place in Europe, then, and the narrative changes form. We get Richards in first person, remembering the time he spent with this Nicole, how he used her and abandoned her--and we see, from the other side, how devastating this sort of treatment can be, how it can alter the course of an entire life. Richards' selfishness is ultimately indicted--his whole life is judged--in a dramatically powerful ending that turns the whole book upside down. It's a remarkable achievement.

Why did Robert Roper entitle it "Cuervo Tales?" Why did he include a prologue that leads one to anticipate a different sort of book? Is it really an elaborate fake-out, a deception to set one up for the revelation of the final pages, or did the project take on a life of its own and slip out of Roper's conscious control?

In any case, the result is a fascinating look at how the intentional and unintentional cruelties of a selfish, misspent life may come back to haunt one later on.

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