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West Side Story : NEED. By Nik Cohn . Alfred A. Knopf: 288 pp., $23

March 09, 1997|GARY INDIANA | Gary Indiana is the author, most recently, of "Resentment: A Comedy" (Doubleday)

"Need" opens (during a New York heat wave) inside the mind of Willie D., a young Latino hustler and fledgling pimp whose car is double-parked outside an Upper West Side pet store called Ferdousine's Zoo. Willie's girlfriend, Anna Crow, is bent over his lap when he looks up to see a fat, 50ish woman in the Zoo's doorway: Kate Root, a retired psychic who runs the Zoo and, like Anna, lives above it. The exchanged glance presses strange buttons in Willie and Kate, who are soon drawn together in a peculiar folie a deux, best described as a circus act rather than a sexual one.

From the outset, "Need" evokes, or invokes, mysterious psychic currents between unlikely strangers. Images in one head migrate to another. Characters are gnawed by matching dreams and parallel memories. The book is unflaggingly carnival-esque. Nik Cohn's urge to make the reader squirm is palpable enough to seem a little forced: "Scabs were Anna's passion. Squeezing blackheads was good, sucking the poison out of bee stings was better, but scabs were best. Those years when she was married to Padgett . . . with his money hand a jigsaw of nicks, whittles, slashes, and she preyed on him like a buzzard, no Band-Aid could keep her off, curses neither, it was love."

The symmetrical fourth lead character, John Joe Maguire, is a newly arrived mulatto from Ireland, shanghaied by Kate to work in the Zoo and by Anna to tend bar in Scheherazade, a club where she dances exotically. (She daylights delivering Verse-O-Grams in costume.) John Joe also moves into the rooms above the Zoo, so all four protagonists, whose points of view alternate chapter to chapter, not only invade each other's thoughts but are physically in each other's faces at every turn. This produces a clogged, claustrophobic, almost torpid quality of narrative, as if everything were taking place in the same boxy mental location, in slow-motion.

Willie restlessly navigates the city's boroughs and byways in his Spyder, obsessed with his appearance (fetishistically so with his footwear) and with Kate Root. The only remaining whore in his stable absconds with the savings he hoped to invest in a topless carwash. Anna bumps and grinds through her shift as Zenaide from Zonguldak, the Turkish Typhoon, then recites Sylvia Plath for a lesbian birthday party in the meat district. (Later, one of her Verse-O-Gram customers, attempting autoerotic asphyxiation, hangs himself during her recital of "The Faking Boy.") Kate munches chocolates and stares at soap operas, ensconced in her artificial jungle, fighting off clairvoyant flashes. John Joe muses prodigiously, sweeps bird droppings and tends bar.

Though these characters can deftly complete one another's allusions to obscure poetry (dialogue ranges from terse, tin-eared snippet to portentous blather), they usually talk past each other and never truly connect except on that ill-defined, yet ever-crackling astral plane. They move through the book like somnambulists, self-absorbed, ruminative, wrapped in masturbatory silences. Yet something, "Need" fitfully suggests, something big, is taking its course. People are being driven to their limit by the heat, or by celestial portents or by prophecy. We are made aware of street-corner preachers spouting doom, peripheral unrest and a general decay of the willingness to cope.

"Need" is not an easy book to follow. Its characters suffer from a condition I can only call chronic flashback, which is less credible as an effect of memory than as Cohn's technique for providing copious, implausible back-stories. Anna, for example, recalls losing her virginity in a large vat of feathers belonging to her father, a Southern huckster operating at the time as Chief Wigwam. Kate, not coincidentally, was once the feather-costumed target of her father's knife-throwing act. It seems that everybody's in show business: John Joe's dad was a prizefighter from Lagos named Kid Ojeah. A significant part of Willie's childhood was spent among the freaks of Coney Island. Flashbacks often run for whole chapters and are meant to provide, among other things, motivations for Cohn's wacky cast. Even given their quirky roots, however, Willie, Anna, Kate and John Joe behave in ways that lack psychological ballast. A feeling of unreality prevails.

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