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Liberties With the Laws of Gravity : FICTION : BILLY SUNDAY, By Rod Jones (Henry Holt: $23; 255 pp.)

June 23, 1996|Jim Krusoe | Jim Krusoe teaches writing at Santa Monica College

It's a commonplace that great stage drama is often based on the lives of historical figures--Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, even Roy Cohn. One would think the same thing should work in fiction, and that's what I hoped when I read the premise of "Billy Sunday" by the Australian novelist Rod Jones. The notion that evangelist Billy Sunday, historian Frederick Jackson Turner and photographer (of scary dead and even scarier living folks) Charles Van Schaick should all be wandering around Black Water Falls, Wis., in the summer of 1892 seemed a curious, even promising, premise. There's even a mysterious missing girl tossed in.

Curious, yes, but workable, unfortunately not. As in one of those "meeting of the minds" programs where a fake Karl Marx meets an impostor Charlotte Bronte and a bogus Howard Hughes in order to have a mock debate, the results of such a conjunction are so skewed as to render the results worthless.

Turner was the creator of the frontier theory of American development, and Van Schaick's primitive photos are best known through the book by Michael Lesy, "Wisconsin Death Trip," where they are accompanied by a litany of crime and dementia. Sunday, portrayed here as a youth, could really be mostly anyone. Besides, in a bit of false advertising, the story turns out to not be really Sunday's, but Turner's. Its plot is a variation on a theme from the romance writer's handbook: "Pure Native American maiden dies for love, then returns as a ghost to visit future famed-historian, who makes love to her amid the reoccurring smell of feces." (There are a lot of odors in the book, mostly bad ones.)

Somewhere along the way, the story of these three characters, instead of opening onto some revelation, gradually becomes clouded by the foggy breath of spiritualism. There's the ghost of Turner's dead Indian lover, a manitou, several other Indian departed, photos of spirits by Van Schaick and even a character straight out of a bad Gothic novel, the Old Necromancer, who has a devilish limp and major eyebrows and seems to transcend time and space.

Given the slide from history into what, as the book goes on, seems cheesy coincidence, one would hope for some compensating grace in its writing style. Alas, here, too, Jones has opened that same romance writers handbook, or maybe one that goes straight back to Homer. Apparently nervous that we may forget who's who along the way, Jones adapts the device of the Homeric epithet to keep us pointed in the right direction. Thus Van Schaick's house always has an "ox-yoke lintel," there's an occurring shotgun with a hexagonal barrel, and Turner, it seems, can't use the men's room without taking along his "fly-rod case." Is this symbolism? I hope not.

Nor does the repetition end there. Early in the book Sunday stares at photos of Indians to observe, ". . . the shapes of the sick bodies, the victims of epidemic disease lying in the doorways . . . the drunken women selling themselves among the filth and stench, the faces lumpy with smallpox."

Sixty pages later it is Turner who looks at the same photos and sees: ". . . drunken women selling themselves among the filth and stench, the faces lumpy with smallpox." Are these two guys psychic or what?

Finally, having begun by attracting our attention through the use of real people, Jones then coyly disavows them in the afterword: "The novelist, like the high-diver and unlike the historian, takes liberties with the laws of gravity." By writing this, he neither validates historians nor extricates this novel from its many difficulties.

Not that "Billy Sunday" doesn't have its merits. What I liked most is Jones' insistence that behind every public record there is a darker, soiled and private one, and that most of these stories disappear in the grave.

Besides, how many novels using historical characters as foreground ever bring it off? To my taste, very few: "The Executioner's Song," "In Cold Blood," and "Libra"--and they're all about murderers.

It could be that the problem for novelists who use the ready-made as shortcuts is that these characters quickly become locked into their limitations. On the other hand, historical figures in theater remain powerful--perhaps because of stage drama's origins in puppetry.

We who are the audience take our pleasure watching the actors, like puppets, swagger or struggle as if they could escape a fate we know awaits them. A page is just too distant to give us the same kind of thrill.

Readers who have not read Jones' first, more-concentrated and peculiar novel, "Julia Paradise," set in the "pestilential dreamscape" of Shanghai, should try it first. Or better yet, to get a whiff of the novel Jones seems to have set out to write in "Billy Sunday," find Lesy's "Wisconsin Death Trip," which is still disturbing and amazing 23 years after its first publication.

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