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FESTIVAL OF BOOKS

Of Ducks, Dinosaurs and Bears

April 19, 1998|CAROLYN SEE | Carolyn See is the author of "Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America," "Golden Days" and "Making History."

Who is Jim Krusoe? And why are all his early books out of print? Will he ever find a larger audience? And isn't it about time? When "Blood Lake" came out earlier this year, you couldn't have called it a blockbuster smash, but readers who knew his work marked the event with quiet joy. Here came those same old themes again: the closeness between man and animal, a lonely man besotted with a narcissistic female gorilla, a bear who talks the reader's ear off, a parrot named Jimbo--and, of course, the author; the constant narrator here is always "Jim" to you, or "Mr. Krusoe." Here's that world where metaphor isn't just a turn of language, but another, closer, way of looking at the world.

When two guys go out fishing in the title story, it really is a blood lake, and their fishing tackle gets all clotted. And precisely because Krusoe's metaphors are so literal-minded, you have to wonder: When another character in another story gets lost in the woods, takes shelter with a girl who looks like "a short, swarthy, asymmetrical version of Natalie Wood" and finds himself quickly involved in "such classic and modern acts of sexual congress" as "the Polar Bear, the Suspension Bridge, the Shoemaker and the Elves, Crop Rotation, the Spinning Wheel, the Bumblebee's Adventure" and nine other variations, when performing the spinning wheel, wouldn't the blood rush to your head? And wouldn't you pass out?

As short as "Blood Lake" is, a mere 158 pages, it leaves you dizzy with words, giddy with supposition, vaguely confused about the real nature of the world we live in, but reassured that whatever you're feeling, it's worth the time and trouble to pay attention to it. Krusoe's world is rich beyond our wildest imaginings, but not, of course, beyond his.

Krusoe started off his literary life as a poet, and it must have been clear, even to him, even in his first excited throes of poetic striving, that his career might veer in some "wrong" direction: If every other 20th century poet was playing morose football, he was attempting an amiable one-armed game of Ping-Pong.

He was forming his own definition of the highly advertised, and piously accepted, belief that this century was, as Auden believed, the Age of Anxiety and that the poet was a depressed intellectual whose duty was to see life clearly and whole but not to think much of it. Krusoe didn't buy into that: If T.S. Eliot saw London as an "[u]nreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many," Krusoe, several decades later, sees another metropolis in a different light: "Today the great city is covered with sadness / it lies upon the monuments of generals and cars / in a thick and greasy slime--nor do umbrellas / help for its source is everywhere. . . ." But doesn't let things stay that way:

Now here's the good news: Somewhere far away

a lone pilot is pulling on his flightsuit to begin

a long journey which will eventually take him

directly over the city--

and when his plane's doors finally open

out will jump a clown who'll do his absolute best

to cheer everyone up in the eight or so seconds

before he hits the ground.

FROM "SADNESS" IN "JUNGLE GIRL"

Given the fact that we'll all be hitting the pavement--that hard and discomforting demarcation between life and death--what should we be doing? How should we spend our time? What if anxiety, depressiveness and scholarship aren't necessarily the correct paths for a poet during the last third of this century?

While the intellectual world will almost certainly not rise up any time soon with mighty cries against Eliot, Pound, Empson and Auden and rush to embrace an obscure California poet and short story writer, a small band of readers just might, happy not to analyze Krusoe's work but simply surrender to loving it madly. It's almost embarrassing, like being so fond of sweet-and-sour pork that you absolutely have to order it in a restaurant even when your friends are going for steamed eel.

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