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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

A Tale Readers Can Play Along With

NEVERMORE by Marie Redonnet. Translated by Jordan Stump. University of Nebraska $12, 123 pages

November 15, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Never read blurbs. The blurb from the Times Literary Supplement on the back of this book calls it "a frenetic erotic thriller . . . a chilling portrait of mankind's vulgarity and duplicity."

In fact, Marie Redonnet (author of "Hotel Splendid," "Rose Mellie Rose," "Candy Story," "Forever Valley") writes quiet books using language that conveys a deceptive sense of normalcy and well-being. Most readers will not be left sobbing helplessly or feeling wildly paranoid.

They will, however, feel ever so slightly unhinged. Symptoms include vague unease in a universe of shifting morals and tentative new beginnings, a sense that the past is both unshakable and unable to protect you from falling into the abyss, and an inability to find a footing in landscapes that borrow so many pieces from different cultures they look like a collage, like they take place in a box by Joseph Cornell.

"Nevermore" is a French western, complete with a new deputy, a rotten, perverted governor, a saloon singer and a Pontiac. The town is called San Rosa, "once famous for its bay and its volcano." Willy Bost, main character at large, rolls into town to assume his post as deputy to Cmdr. Roney Burke. He puts up at the boardinghouse of Lizzie Malik, a former acrobat who's recovering from a freak accident engineered by someone who shall remain nameless (only Livio, the magician Lizzie once loved, knows for sure).

The culture of San Rosa rests on three pillars: Gobb's Amusement Park and two nightclubs, the Eden Palace and the Babylon. Very shady dealings all around, including multiple murders in the amusement park's pissotiere (a public urinal not found, originally, in the American West).

After President Hardley (the governor and a source of evil corruption) is assassinated, Willy must sift through the dwarfs, car mechanics, cashiers, trapeze artists and buvette (a small cafe) owners for a suspect, not to mention a connection between Lizzie's accident and more recent murders. Willy keeps a sort of disembodied journal (he also likes extremely coldhearted, disembodied sex, referred to by the Times Literary Supplement as erotic) in which he admonishes himself to forget the past (a past so powerful that it often makes him dizzy and faint) and stop comparing his dreams to reality.

"Nevermore" is very high artifice, something I call game-board fiction. I recently tried to teach my son, Sam, how to play chess. I told him what all the pieces were called (pawns, bishops, knights, etc.), and he proceeded immediately to rename all the pieces (soldiers, singers--because church people sing--and horses), investing them with his own roles, histories and personalities. This is what one must do with Redonnet's characters, and it is very amusing. The novelist lays out the board and fashions the characters, giving them names and thumbprints, places to go and people to kill--but little else in the way of dreams and motivations.

The reader imagines why they move and who the real winner is. The sense of unease, as always, comes from any resemblance you might have to a character you do not like.

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