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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

Probing the Darker Corners of the Psyche : A MAN'S GAME by Newton Thornburg; Forge $22.95, 300 pages

July 17, 1996|SCHUYLER INGLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jimbo Slade, the heavy in Newton Thornburg's new novel, "A Man's Game," likens sexual relations with women to food and water, ". . . it's something we just gotta have," he says in a philosophical moment. "So when a guy asks for it, and they say no, what're you supposed to do? Just say OK and then go starve to death?"

His answer to his own question, of course, is no. And that leads him to the notion of rape, a subject on which Jimbo has an opinion or two. "All rape is, is a guy takin' what nature forces him to take," he allows. If the woman gets a little "banged up in the process, that's her goddamn fault for resistin'. After all, what's happenin' to her ain't no different than what's happenin to the guy--they both havin' sex, right? So what's the big deal?"

Jimbo would rather date than rape, but his idea of meeting single women and engaging them in conversations that might actually lead somewhere is a little too twisted to bring much success. He selects a victim of his unwanted attentions, and follows her. Step by step. Literally. Telling her all the wonderful things she's likely to feel and appreciate when he works on her with his knife and his penis, the two of which appear to be interchangeable. He tells his victims he looks forward to seeing his favorite expression on their faces: the eyes of a horse trapped in a fire.

The Seattle police have been watching Jimbo. They suspect him of one rape and another rape-murder, but they have never had enough evidence to bring charges, or even build much of a case. They well know his type: young, uneducated, coming from nowhere and headed in much the same direction, an institutional creation starting with foster homes and ending in state prison. What Jimbo knows that the cops don't know--or anyone else, for that matter--is that he's much smarter than they are.

Enter Jack Baird. He's Mr. Straight. A paper salesman. Husband and father. He's sinking ever farther into his mid-40s, wondering all along about some of the choices he's made and why life has gone kind of flat. His wife seems all but estranged. His son is away at college. And his daughter, the light of his life, can't seem to rise up out of adolescent father-worship and proceed on into young womanhood. Not that Jack minds. He is absolutely blind to his daughter's silliness and shallowness, and completely dotes on her.

So you can well imagine how the guy feels when Jimbo Slade starts following his daughter home from the downtown department store where she works. Jimbo all but walks her right up to the front door of her house, speaking his special thoughts for only her to hear. The harassment goes on long enough that Jack decides he'd better take the problem to the police. But first he'll just follow Jimbo and find out where he lives and who he is.

The cops, as it turns out, are not too thrilled to find out that Jack has been tailing their favorite psychopath. They seem--to Jack, at least--more interested in protecting Jimbo's rights than they do in protecting Jack's daughter. A restraining order is served on Jimbo but, much like restraining orders in the past, it does little good. He simply continues to harass and threaten from 100 feet away.

That's why Jack decides to take matters into his own hands, his own way. Jack, Jimbo, and the cops all revolve around each other, taking turns as hunter and hunted, blurring the lines of right and wrong that should normally separate them. It's a study in testosterone gone and going awry, with victims falling this way and that--victims of rape and murder, to be sure, but victims too of psychic and emotional deceit.

Thornburg has a way of setting up a story on familiar ground and then, with a deft twist or two, jerking that ground out from under the reader, You think you're headed one place only to find yourself wandering around in completely unsuspected territory. Such was the case in his best known novel, "Cutter and Bone." And such is the case in "A Man's Game."

Thornburg is a spare, muscular writer whose stories walk the reader into the darker corners of the human psyche. Seattle, that sweet, likable town, reveals its shades of the sinister with Thornburg's careful prodding. This writer knows that even in the most wholesome of cities occupied by the most complacent of people, by simply dropping a Jimbo Slade into the mix you can pretty much expect the worst. The one thing Thornburg doesn't do is disappoint.

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