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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Moralistic Tale of Avarice, Redemption : IN SEARCH OF SATISFACTION by J. California Cooper ; Doubleday $21.95, 351 pages


J. California Cooper's second novel is a mostly absorbing work, off-putting only when the author's trademark folksiness gets a bit cloying. What rescues it is Cooper's facile storytelling, as straight-ahead as a freight train but marvelously textured and layered with voices that weave in and out of each other but never collide.

Characters are shaken up plenty on this bump-ridden ride, but only truly touch at the journey's end when the many cars chug to a grand, overarching stop.

This is a tale about tracks, about the perils of navigating the wrong and right sides of them in the search for truth. Set in the deep South, it features two half-sisters, Ruth and Yinyang, who share one father and two bloodlines--black and white--but don't know of each other's existence.

The story traces their disparate but parallel lives, the hardships of black Ruth and the luxurious but hedonistic times of fair-skinned, pointedly named Yinyang. The miscegenation forces itself to light with melodramatic results.

Josephus Josephus, the father and freed slave who is the source of the story's tangled roots, has buried a fortune beneath a chicken house, which he expects to be dug up by future generations. Who gets the gold--and what they do with it--is another engine that drives this zestfully earnest story, built as it is on such biblical themes as avarice and redemption.

Despite the weightiness, this is at heart a game. Whenever Cooper gets heavy (as she frequently does when she makes Christian pronouncements on her morally confused cast of characters), Satan pops up like a whimsical Greek chorus, a Southern-style Puck who lingers at the edges of the tale, biding time, waiting for opportunities to create mischief.

Observing troubled Richard Bafoe after he's just confessed an awful secret to his mother, Satan thinks to himself, "I give those people everything! Why aren't they happy? Busy as always, he flew off to finish giving suggestions to the scientists he was helping to discover something in the earth that might finally destroy the earth. He went happily."

Yet the strengths of "In Search of Satisfaction"--clearly drawn characters and plenty of plot swings per chapter--are also its weakness. The story is colorful but life is ultimately drawn in black-and-white. Good and evil are the main characters here, even though the most fascinating human is the white matriarch Carlene Bafoe; ironically, the most interesting character is the most pernicious.

But even as Carlene's actions catapult her toward certain doom, you get the feeling Cooper empathizes with Carlene more than she can say. Cooper examines her thoroughly, tracing in detail her life, how she wound up steeped in bitterness, a larger version of the old black widow spider that slumbers unnoticed in her bedroom, gorging on its own progeny.

It's almost a shame that so deft a writer as Cooper so firmly takes the side of good, too often wet-blanketing things just as they're getting deliciously sinful. Yet she often does have fun with the morality-tale genre she's created.

She plays good and evil against a backdrop of racial and sexual taboos that guarantee sparks: Yinyang's attempt at "passeblanc" leads her down the path of destruction. Cooper relishes downfalls--sexual undoings, self-deception, pretentiousness of all sorts. She clearly displays an affinity for the womanizing jazzmeister Bowlegs, the fatally weak Richard Bafoe, the lovely but self-aggrandizing Yinyang.

The ugly pall cast by perverted sex is disturbing. Incest and molestation are rampant; fathers sleep with daughters, uncles with nieces, and newborn babies are silently whisked away.

These are, I suppose, more cautionary notes from Cooper, but I balked at the implication that sex indiscriminately blows love all to bits, and that love is best practiced from afar. Such blatant admonishments remind you that you're essentially reading a fairy tale, albeit a sophisticated one. "In Search" zigzags like mad but finally stops on a dime. Unlike life, it ends like it's supposed to.

Despite some proselytizing, Cooper keeps things fresh by constantly juxtaposing her once-upon-a-time perkiness with the frequent tawdriness of her tale. That combined with her fluid style makes for a titillating read, which, while it may not convert readers, mostly satisfies.

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