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BOOK REVIEW : Picaresque Trip to Where the Mythical, the Absurd Meet : THE WRESTLER'S CRUEL STUDY by Stephen Dobyns . Norton: $22.95, 448 pages

August 26, 1993|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

The dreamer is more interesting than the dream, the Peeping Tom more interesting than what he peeps at. Stephen Dobyns' scattily philosophic romp begins with one entrancing moment. A New Yorker stands morosely on his penthouse balcony one night, drinking heavily and contemplating his wife's forthcoming divorce action. In the canyon 30 stories below, the city is harassing itself: panhandlers, muggers and foreshortened over-achievers. And opposite, two gorillas are climbing toward the upper-story window of another apartment house.

Promising, and of course we would like to know what the creatures--men in animal suits, in fact--are up to. But the fictional moment is not with gorillas. It is with the man, beleaguered beyond all urban endurance, who looks out from his balcony and sees gorillas.

"The Wrestler's Cruel Study" never gets back to him, except for a brief moment at the end. Instead, it crosses the street and crashes through the window along with the animal suits. From there on, it is all a wordy maelstrom, a big-city game of Dungeons and Dragons, a panorama of urban clashes and disjunctions that passes from slapstick to absurd to mythical and back again.

Behind the window is Rose White, the ethereal blond fiancee of Michael Marmaduke, a.k.a. Marduk the Magnificent. Sweet and gentle, Michael is a New York celebrity, star of a troupe of professional wrestlers with such show-biz names as as Dentata, Thrombosis and Prime Rib. Their impresario is the Nietzsche-spouting Primus Muldoon who comes in periodically to expound his philosophy of Life as Gimmick. The 300-pound pyrotechnics of professional wrestling, with its scripted screams and staged atrocities, epitomize the Gimmick. Most of the book's characters have one, though; according to Muldoon, a role is the real part of a life. Nietzsche's horse-brush mustache is more real than Nietzsche.

Rose White is being abducted by the gorilla-suited agents of a cloudy figure called Pseudo-Marduk, a rival of Michael's or perhaps an alter ego. The book's incessantly distracted action consists of Michael's efforts to find and rescue her. His search around the city is helped, hindered or simply trampled over by a whole circus of other characters.

There are Brodsky and Grabski, the detective partners who loathe their enforced togetherness and struggle for individual identities, to the point of undergoing plastic surgery to change their faces. There is Wallski, whose wife browbeats him into using a favor owed him by a real estate magnate to obtain a succession of ever grander apartments and finally an entire hotel. ("Pierre" she moans in her sleep, and Wallski suspects a lover; but it is the hotel she is dreaming about.)

There is a legless boy who peddles drugs in the street, and the rich mobster's daughter who falls in love with him. Their chances look poorly until the boy manages to rescue the father from an ambush by six other gangsters. There is the virginal Rose White's evil and lustful sister, Violet White, who may or may not turn out to be Rose herself. And there is Jack Molay.

Molay, who accosts Michael one night near Central Park, assumes various guises as he gives the searching lover misleading hints as to the whereabouts of his abducted sweetheart. His name, however, is a barely changed alteration of Jacques de Molay, the last leader of the Knights Templar, who was executed in the 14th Century on heresy charges. Dobyns' Molay presides over a continuing conclave of representatives of the hundreds of heresies that sprouted in the first thousand years or so of the Catholic Church.

They meet in the Chrysler Building; when they are not fighting in the streets, that is. Dobyns sets up his warring theological combatants as so many leather-jacketed motorcycle gangs. They go at each other with knives and chains over such questions as the nature of the Trinity and whether sex is an evil in itself or only insofar as it leads to procreation. The conceit is appealing and ingenious, though it has only the foggiest connection to the other foggily connected parts.

Dobyns, author of a number of detective stories and of several magically original novels--most recently, "After Shocks/Near Escapes" about a child and an earthquake in Chile--embeds his mildly entertaining philosophical conceits in a dismaying amount of palaver. His picaresque plot resembles an out-of-control eggbeater with very few eggs.

"Cruel Study" occasionally calls to mind Paul Goodman's "The Empire City" and Mark Helprin's "Winter's Tale," many-splendored big-city allegories that occasionally stuck when their fantasy clogged up. This book, hastier and with only one or two splendors, sticks quicker and more permanently. Its hyperactivity stirs up a wind resistance it is not powerful or convinced enough to get through.

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