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BOOK REVIEW : A Gruesome Step Over the Line Between Fan and Fanatic : FAN MAIL by Ronald Munson ; Dutton $21, 309 pages

September 27, 1993|MARK LINDQUIST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joan Carpenter is an anchorwoman. Her stated ambition is to be rich and famous. The Watcher is a fan. "Fan Mail" is a creepy book about their symbiotic connection.

When Joan begins her job in St. Louis, the Watcher sends her awe-struck letters that are no more warped than you would expect from a celebrity worshiper. His awe turns ugly, however, when a TV critic skewers Joan's show. The Watcher castrates the critic and mails his testicles to Joan in a manner intended to boost the ratings of Joan's sinking show.

The Watcher hopes this gesture will please Joan. Even more grotesque, Joan is pleased about the improved ratings. She finds herself where she wants to be--on the road to fame. But the Watcher is riding shotgun.

"Fan Mail" is told entirely through letters, phone calls, faxes and other forms of memoranda. This technique ups the creepiness quotient by increasing the feeling of alienation and highlighting the lack of genuine human connection in these characters' lives.

Though this technique is effective, there is a downside. Character is rarely revealed through action, and Munson is not up to the task of truly portraying these characters through voice. Munson has a big plot to feed and this requires his characters to write and say things that people do not truly write or say.

Still, the most off-putting aspect of the book is the characters themselves. They're repellent. More importantly, they're not repellent in an engaging way.

Ironically, the Watcher has the most interesting voice. (The conversations with his computer are simultaneously hilarious and scary.) In a classic dramatic sense, the Watcher is the hero. You may even find yourself hoping he kills off the rest of the cast.

True to its genre (if not much else), almost anyone in the book could be the Watcher:

* Charles Fishman, Joan's boss, who is concerned solely with ratings (and is as subtly drawn as his name suggests).

* Gary Wells, Joan's jealous co-anchor.

* Alexis Hartz, the ambitious celebrity-collecting real estate agent.

* Alan Carter, attracted to Joan, but stereotypically male and afraid of commitment.

* Dan, a lawyer and Joan's agent.

* Curt Collins, a gardener who writes bad poetry and is too stupid to realize even his bad poetry has more to it than the celebrity he worships, Joan.

(The reveal is perfect--a surprise that shouldn't be.)

You would think Joan would look smart and deep, surrounded mostly by superficial idiots. Nope. No amount of literary allusions tossed into her letters--and there are several--can dissuade the reader from the obvious: This is a TV celebrity with all the depth you'd expect.

The reader is asked to forgive or understand her intense self-involvement since her husband died in a plane crash and her obsession with success cranked up after the tragedy.

Munson, a professor of philosophy of science and medicine, knows his book isn't about character. This book is about plot, and the plot works.

Also, Munson gilds this thriller with a cynical edge that continually comments on how and why the increasing number of disconnected people in our society leech onto celebrities.

Joan's sister is, conveniently, a psychiatrist. This is her professional opinion on Joan's superficial guilt: "It shows you're a good person with appropriate feelings."

Fortunately, Joan's sister knows another doctor who's an expert in this field and makes somewhat more trenchant observations. He believes that the professed love of a fan is not love at all, but a particularly twisted form of hate.

But is that the Watcher's problem? Consider the "Cheers" theme song, which invites the viewer into "a place where everyone knows your name." Well, no. Actually, Woody Harrelson and Ted Danson don't know your name. And they don't want to.

Healthy people understand this, of course. The Watcher, however, believes Joan knows him and wants to have a relationship with him. He is only guilty of believing what TV sells. This is what makes him sick.

Why exactly the Watcher must castrate and kill is never quite clear, but the Watcher does try to explain. He believes the "American dream" is not the old-fashioned one of making a decent living and raising a decent family or making some kind of contribution, but one of achieving "fame and fortune." And, as the Watcher says to Joan, "I wanted us to get to the top.

If you are looking for literature, look elsewhere, If you are looking for a well-plotted thriller with an interesting contemporary edge, you will like "Fan Mail."

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