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The Good, the Bad and the Confusing : THE GAME OF THIRTY, By William Kotzwinkle (Houghton Mifflin Co.; $21.95; 272 pp.)

July 24, 1994|James Sallis | James Sallis' latest novel, "Black Hornet," is due out in October from Carroll & Graf; Avon will publish "The Long-Legged Fly" in paperback in August

What does one expect next from a man who has written a book of mystery stories in which all the characters are insects and a book that has as its main character a talking handkerchief?

William Kotzwinkle isn't likely to be inducted into the literary pantheon anytime soon. He writes too much, for one thing. And little of it is in the approved manner; it's rather as if he keeps turning up in heavy boots or barefoot when everyone else at the party is wearing loafers. His novelization of "E.T. The Extraterrestrial" was the top bestseller of all 1982. (So what if major points of view were those of a dog and an extraterrestrial botanist?) And aside from that he's best known, not as the author of properly reflective, socially relevant novels, but of a cult classic about die-hard hippie Horse Badorties ("The Fan Man") and a novel decrying animal experimentation ("Doctor Rat").

This latest, Kotzwinkle's 20th book, is a detective novel. Not some revisionist, postmodern exercise fingering mystery tropes to squeeze out thin juice for existential cocktails, mind you, but a straight detective story.

Good guys, bad guys, and a hell of a lot of confusion.

There is, as in much of the author's work, a fantastic element. It's not the one feinted at by ongoing references to an ancient Egyptian game. Nor is it, really, the one foreshadowed by early allusions to Janus, brother gods Ephialtes and Otus, and Maat, goddess of truth. Though when it comes, to some readers it may appear more fantastic than either.

Jimmy McShane, who grew up in Hell's Kitchen and was once a federal agent, is now a private investigator. He wears expensive Italian suits, carries in the pocket of those suits a thousand-dollar pen with radio transmitter on board, is able at the drop of a whim to enlist and afford the full-time services of New York's best electronic mole or a surveillance specialist whose van does everything but call up the judge for you.

A wealthy dealer in Egyptian antiquities has been murdered, injected with cobra venom; his organs cut out of his body and carted away, and Jimmy is brought in by daughter Temple to investigate. Oil quickly turns to roux: Jimmy receives by fax the image of a cobra, other (unidentified) players appear; Temple's mother attempts to stop the investigation and, indeed, to enlist Jimmy's help in institutionalizing her daughter.

But Jimmy doggedly follows the thread into mazes he never even knew existed, toward the inevitable Minotaur.

It leads him from apartments aloofly overlooking Central Park to the storefronts and shrouded upper floors of Times Square. From diamond-studded 47th Street to suburbs of executive privilege so saturated with superfluous money that children have become a kind of ultimate wampum.

Kotzwinkle's adroitness in gathering up the various loops and bows of his novel without ever forcing them into knots is a marvel to behold. So much happens here, and at such deep levels; yet somehow it passes by so lightly. I'm reminded of the grass in Lawrence Durrell's poem "Style"--an assassin of polish, "blood from the unfelt stroke."

Of an abused child, Jimmy says: "The truth was she was tough. She'd been hurt, but she grew around it the way a tree will grow around any impediment to its progress; the force is upward."

That seems finally what Kotzwinkle, with all his talking handkerchiefs, crickets and the men who fall in love with them, his chief-inspector mantises, extraterrestrials, hippies and ex-federal agents, has to say: Whatever historical cataclysms, whatever self-destruction, injustice and cruelty befall us, we will survive, both individually and socially.

We may survive changed, changed in ways we now absolutely cannot imagine, but we will, absolutely, survive.

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