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Wild Solutions for Women's Ills : ANIMAL ACTS, By Rhoda Lerman (Henry Holt: $22.50; 263 pp.)

July 03, 1994|RICHARD EDER

In Rhoda Lerman's beleaguered fable, the worst possible outcome for Beauty would be for her Beast to turn into a Prince. Beasts--in this case a great ape--are infinitely preferable.

Lerman's specialty is wild solutions for women, mostly for demonstrating the wilderness of the problem. She is like nobody else in the United States. She has some kinship with the English writers Fay Weldon and the late Angela Carter--closer to the lush extravagance of the latter than to the tauter devices of the former, although all three are conceptual tear-aways.

Lerman's last novel, "God's Ear," was an unbelted transcontinental rampage, in the course of which the only solution for her incandescent and wonderfully insatiable Jewish heroine was to effect the impossible and become a Hasidic rabbi. In "Animal Acts," another unbounded woman, less wonderful, bursts the male order by deserting her rich, kind husband and her ruthless, sexy lover to take off with a gorilla.

Rich and kind is repressive; so is ruthless and sexy--when either pair modifies the noun man. Linda, Lerman's protagonist, reaches this conclusion in the course of her eventful flight from Long Island to Florida in a truck specially fitted with a cage, air-conditioning, sandwiches for her, cabbages for him and--as precaution--Mace, a box of tranquilized Reese's Peanut-Butter Cups and air freshener. Her philosophy, worked out in hallucinatory bits along the way, goes as follows:

"Woman" is the template for the human species; men are hybrids. They are half-woman and half-ape, but not a noble ape like the gorilla. Their demi-progenitor is the murderous, chattering, neurotic chimpanzee. Women fall for the human (i.e., feminine) half, as well as for the sheer sex; only to find themselves torn up by the animal half's chatter and murderousness. Stop messing with an unsoundly bred hybrid, the conclusion goes: Stick with the gorilla, lovable despite his limitations and a dangerousness that isn't mean, at least.

Now this is far-fetched but so, in terms of simply getting from one side of a circus tent to the other, is a high wire strung 40 feet above ground. In fact, it sets up a fine philosophical rigging for Lerman's acrobatics. At the start, for example, she hoists us some way up in the air by dedicating her novel to eight women who own or train gorillas. We are displaced; the ground sways below. Can she be serious?

The difficulty with "Animal Acts" is not the high wire. It is that the feats performed on it are awkward; not up to those of "God's Ear," for example. They start off very well indeed; midway they run out of steam, and by the end the extravagant action declines, as in many chase movies, into dutifulness; and the acrobatic philosophy settles into sedentary talk.

Linda's wavering, fitful voice pitches us right into her seasick life with Steven, one of those modern investors who own nothing but only parts of things: discount stores, one-third interest in a yacht, a half-interest in an airplane, and time-shares at half a dozen glamorous sites. Their life on Long Island is lavish and mild; he is actively indulgent and passively possessive. He frets when she goes for walks at night; he is picky about small items such as her failure to put the can opener away where it belongs.

Each fall she leaves him to go to Ireland, ostensibly to paint. In fact, she joins her lover, John: handsome, sexually adroit and with a playful British charm. He is also a professional killer attached to naval intelligence. And he shares Steven's domestic obsession. "Where is my can opener?" he demands; it is the male territorial howl and it freezes a woman's spirit. Linda's life is apportioned between two cages on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

When Steven tells her he has invested in a Coney Island gorilla act, she takes their third-best car and runs away to check it out. As she watches, the gorilla, named Moses, kills his inexperienced keeper when he makes a sudden wrong move. Linda persuades Moses back into his cage--a precarious empathy has set in--and takes him to the animal agency that rented him out. The proprietor, an Isaac Bashevis Singer character, half-sage, half-crook, persuades her to drive Moses to Florida before the authorities catch him. She will turn him over to an associate and bring back the money. It will give her a week, after all, to think about her marriage. "Listen, maidele ," the old man says as he sits drinking milk with Moses. "The gorilla is what he is. Be afraid of your husband."

Up to this point, when Linda's and Moses' wanderings begin, "Animal Acts" keeps us at a high pitch. We are trying to figure out a protagonist whose unexpectedness and kaleidoscopic glitter in telling about herself offer a challenge to our minds, a sense of suspense and considerable delight. The journey begins well and then wears down.

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