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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Searching for Life's Deeper Truths--and Finding Them : BREATHING WATER by Thomas Gavin ; Arcade; $19.95, 320 pages

March 07, 1994|MICHAEL HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many a scam has been greased by the words of Scripture, but Thomas Gavin's novel about a con man and his 12-year-old accomplice preying on a small Upstate New York town works the opposite way: The story's cynical, down-home charm is just a ploy to ease us into a serious encounter with religious issues.

The boy, Paul, and the con man, Everet Dusseau, who draws a comic strip called "Deathwind," happen to drift into Rising Sun just as its richest citizen is proposing to spend $1 million on a memorial to her grandson, Powell, kidnaped nine years ago at age 3 and presumed dead. Paul claims to be Powell--which, if true, would deprive the town of its expected windfall.

The plot seems to focus on two questions. Can Paul, whom we know to be an impostor, fool the sharp-eyed dowager, Edna Kane, whose daughter ran off to Hollywood and committed suicide after the boy's disappearance? And can the town's high-minded if alcoholic newspaper editor, Pardon Wilhelm, and his ace reporter, Frank Canby, punch holes in Dusseau's story before it's too late?

We're in no hurry for the answers. Gavin ("Kingkill," "The Last Film of Emile Vico") writes in prose as fine-grained and glistening as varnished oak, and makes this tale meander through so many classic Faulknerian devices (such as telling us about Powell's mother's reaction to the kidnaping via the boozy speculations of Wilhelm and Canby years afterward) that we keep checking to make sure Rising Sun isn't somewhere in the South.

For the sheer fun of it, it seems, Gavin lavishes detail on every minor character, every stage prop. Dusseau and Paul arrive, for instance, in "a tan Chevy van with Vermont plates and rust under the headlight rims and a little gob of feathers with what looked like a sparrow wing sticking out of it squashed to the grille. . . . A sharp-edged tomahawk was painted with its blade angled just behind the passenger door and whitish streaks trailing back the length of the van to show it was flying through the air."

So it seems only incidental, at first, that the cook at the Milky Way Cafe speaks in tongues. That Wilhelm is reading the "Confessions" of St. Augustine. That Kane's mansion contains a statue of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. That her secretary--Canby's ex-girlfriend and Dusseau's future lover--is doing self-imposed penance for an abortion. And that even Dusseau views his violence-drenched art as a kind of religion.

Then, however, Paul finds clues that he may be Powell. Dusseau, who has slyly kept their relationship undefined, may really be his father--and his kidnaper.

This brings on a crisis. The boy has been bright enough to master the manipulative arsenal of mind-control exercises that Dusseau learned both as an abused child and as a Jesuit seminarian; he also is bright enough to see that Dusseau's outlook has its limitations. If Kane is his grandmother, shouldn't he just tell her the truth?

*

"True's got nothing to do with facts," Dusseau answers--the credo of the artist, the existentialist. "True is what you can make the one with the belt need to believe. True is control . . . so you can put your whole life behind the person you made up, and they believe it."

Meanwhile, Wilhelm and Canby, in dogged journalistic pursuit of the facts, come to wonder whether, indeed, they are irrelevant to life's deeper truths. And Kane, although she retains her faith in God, concludes that his love may be totally devoid of pity.

Love does triumph in "Breathing Water." It softens Kane's arrogance. It corrupts her secretary, who badly needed corrupting. It exposes the shallowness of Wilhelm's ambition to be a "just judge" and Canby's to be a "shark" chasing after exposes. It touches even Dusseau's tortured soul. And it could save Paul--if it doesn't kill him first.

But we may feel, like Kane, that this love is a mixed blessing. The plot dives, at the end, into much deeper and colder waters. Gavin takes us into Dusseau's mind; the questions dangled in front of us for so long get answered with rude abruptness.

The ending is written, if anything, even more brilliantly than the rest of the novel, but it's a bit more than we bargained for, and we miss the fun.

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