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He Does the Cooking, Baby : A FLING WITH A DEMON LOVER. By Kelvin Christopher James (HarperCollins: $22, 248 pp.)

August 11, 1996|Laura Kalpakian | Laura Kalpakian's novel, "Cosette," is a sequel to Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables."

In this entertaining novel, Kelvin Christopher James, best known for his gorgeous evocations of his native Trinidad, gives us a different island, a Greek island, and a tale beginning on yet another island, Manhattan.

Sassela Jack has her act together: Near 40, urban, educated, attractive, she has a nice flat in Harlem, a family she likes, context and memories that support her sense of self. She has a rewarding job teaching fourth grade and she takes university courses at night.

But there's Harry, her live-in lover, who has outlived his usefulness. In her letter advising Harry to split by the time she returns from her Greek vacation, Sassy is so organized that she tells him where to find his dry-cleaning tickets.

James has created in Sassy a woman of independent ways and means and in the story's New York section, his snappy narrative style sharpens her portrayal. Moreover, to James' credit, Sassy is a successful female consciousness with the convictions of an interior life, not merely a female physical geography that the author visits as a male tourist.

But even the most together of women get the blues, and in the midst of a New York snowstorm, Sassy can't move her car. She accepts the help of a young student, Ciam, a Caribbean smoothie, beautiful, maybe 21, a kid with no context beyond the island lilt of his voice.

Through a series of tortured and discarded plot devices, these two end up on the same plane to a Greek island where both forsake their travel groups (Sassy with teachers, Ciam with a soccer team). They go to a beach hut, which Ciam miraculously procures through his intimate Greek contacts. All this is the book's weakest feature. Never mind--we're in for 18 days of surf, sex, sun, weed and retsina.

But theirs is an uneasy paradise. They are mugged and wreck their moped, and moreover there are some truly strange natives, to say nothing of strange voids among the natives: No young men live on this island. Sassy writes this off to conscription, but for a woman so articulate, inexplicably, she can't bring herself to discuss any of these unsettling observations with Ciam, including a drowning she witnesses from afar.

And this is odd because their relationship is almost entirely present tense. With virtually no past, Ciam is the perfect lover for a fling: He does the cooking, baby, he pays the rent; except for a few early mishaps, he's great in the sack. Still, for all his beauty, exuberance and energy, Ciam has his limitations. He can be petulant, arrogant and unfaithful (if that's not too strong a term for their forthright arrangement). In two weeks, Sassy's had enough, but all the same, she is not willing to share Ciam with a strange local girl, the nasty, mysterious, possessive Fifina, a child's body weirdly sheltering an unbridled libido.

The colors on this island and James' descriptions are monochrome rather than vivid. Something desolate and dangerous lurks here, reeking of neglected gods that underlie this novel like blue veins under dark skin.

Toward the end of her holiday, Sassy reflects that Harlem and her three-deadbolt flat look really good. That may be, but she'll never tell Ciam where to pick up his dry-cleaning and, alas, it matters less to her than it does to the reader.

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