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BOOK REVIEW : Sinister Comedy Skewers Small-Town Life : ELECT MR. ROBINSON FOR A BETTER WORLD by Donald Antrim ; Viking; $20, 184 pages


Until the townspeople in the little Southern seacoast community--libertarians and anti-tax read-my-lippers, every one--defunded the elementary school, Pete Robinson used Clausewitz's war doctrine to instruct his third-graders in contemporary notions of social reform. He also staged show-and-tell sessions on medieval torture.

There was nothing especially aberrant about this. Pete's fellow-citizens take the right to bear arms to the point of bearing grenades, machine guns and missiles. In a kind of civic improvement effort, each of their pink and white stucco houses has its own moat, one filled with water moccasins, another with broken glass, and so on. Two quarreling neighborhood households have sown Claymore mines throughout the park they both abut, and send armed patrols out after each other at night.

Donald Antrim has written a jocularly outlandish fable of the I-have-seen-the-future-and-it-is-us variety. His town is a post-Reagan America poisoned by its own selfishness and its refusal to pay for public endeavors.

The school has been turned into a workshop where the townspeople fashion coral trinkets for tourists; there is no police-force--too expensive--but only an ad-hoc vigilantism; and people's expensively equipped kitchens are swamped by a rising tide of sewage. Fixing the sewer system would require tax money.

For a while, Antrim's satirical tale works nicely. He manages, initially, to juxtapose a pleasant middle-class normality with the grotesque aberrations that spring up amid it. There is a cozy Updike-like uxoriousness as Pete and Meredith, his wife, busy themselves in their garden on a golden afternoon, admire the old-fashioned lines of their house, and slip into a self-congratulatory bout of sex. Particularly do they admire the way the sunset lights up their garden project: sharpened bamboo stakes for their moat. Meredith suggests curare on the tips but Pete feels it would be excessive.

In another well-managed mesh of small-town folkways and wild outrageousness, four of the town's leading citizens assemble with their automobiles for a different project. They putter about their cars, as men do, exchange cracks, go for jumper cables when one of the batteries goes dead. They re-park them until each is pointed in a different direction. Suspended in the middle by fishing line tied to his wrists and ankles, is Jim Kunkel, the former mayor. The cars start, move off and pull him apart. The week before, Kunkel had lobbed Stinger missiles into a town picnic, killing several townspeople.

These things all come at the start, and they set the scene with an intriguing wackiness and a tone that hovers between the comic and the sinister. Antrim's writing has a stylish edge and bite; we wait to see what he is going to do. Even though Pete goes along with the town's jungle ways, for example, his narration conveys a reflective disquiet. He talks of reforming his community, of setting up a new school, of running for mayor. Perhaps, win or lose, and despite his own aberrations--he keeps a scale model of an Inquisition torture chamber in his basement--he will provide a dramatic or at least an innocent counterpoint to what is going on.

But having written a parodic skit, Antrim fails to develop it. Instead, he piles on scenes that multiply the action without advancing it. Pete spends a wild night in the park to distribute one of the pieces of Jim Kunkel that he keeps in the freezer. The ex-mayor, told of the legend that Osiris achieved re-birth by parceling out his body, had exacted Pete's promise that he would help him achieve the same thing.

There is a New Age takeoff in which Meredith, seeking her animal counterpart, convinces herself that she is a coelacanth. A task force attempts to explode the mines in the park by throwing library books at them. Pete starts a school in his basement with disastrous results.

Antrim's bright idea turns out to be not much more than that. None of his characters grow or change; at most, we learn more about them. The neighborly overlay of ordinary life is done neatly but without any special effort. But the real weakness is the author's attitude toward his satire; he doesn't seem to take it seriously enough to move with it.

To go any real distance with a fable of communal corruption, something good or at least innocent needs to be lost--the sacrificial victim in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," for example. Antrim's problem is not the mixture of the comic and the awful. It is that he seems to have no notion of anything being destroyed but only of what destroys it. A Jonathan Swift could manage to carry on in the vein of parodic excoriation for quite a while, but eventually he had to invent goodness, in the shape of the Houyhnhnms. The amusing outlandishness of Antrim's fable simply gets more outlandish and less amusing.

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