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A Jaded Rock Star's Escape to a Questionable Island Paradise

GONE FOR GOOD, by Mark Childress, Alfred A. Knopf, 374 pages, $25

July 03, 1998|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The concept behind "Gone for Good," the fifth novel by Southern writer Mark Childress, sounds promising in prospect: On July 14, 1972, Ben "Superman" Willis, a folk-rock singer who has hit the top of the charts, becomes disoriented by drugs while piloting his private plane. He crash-lands on a tropical island populated by famous people the rest of the world believes to have disappeared or died.

Willis' strange adventure, although accidental, is not without symbolic significance, given the kind of life he's been leading. "After a while it got to be the same fun over and over, and then it became the opposite of fun," he reflects. "There were only so many drugs and girls you could do in one lifetime." His marriage to the former Miss Southwest Louisiana has gone stale. Even the adulation of his fans is no longer so thrilling. The only activity that still excites him is flying his airplane. The only person he's not sick of is his 11-year old son, Ben Jr., although, to be truthful, he hasn't spent very much time with the boy.

Back home in Louisiana, Ben Jr. is practicing "The Impossible Dream" for a piano recital when word comes that his famous father has vanished and is presumed dead. The youngster can't help feeling disappointed at being whisked off to California for Dad's rock-star-laden memorial service without having had the chance to play the piece he'd rehearsed so diligently. And, somehow, he can't quite bring himself to believe his father is truly gone for good.

Back on the mysterious island, Ben Sr. (whom the author generally calls "Superman," a minor but irritating mannerism that also betokens the novel's more serious flaws) is nursed back to health by a sharp-tongued old lady named Emily and her helper, a wise old Indian named Pito.

The island seems like a carefree paradise full of former celebrities who managed to get away from it all (unless, as one of the more villainous inhabitants claims, it's actually an island asylum full of crazy people who only imagine they're famous). Superman's old lady rescuer may really be Amelia Earhart; a mustachioed drag queen named Frank, her navigator; the beautiful, bosomy sexpot whom Superman met on the beach may well be Marilyn Monroe; the sickly old man in the cottage next to hers is perhaps John F. Kennedy.

*

Soon Superman is involved in a series of preposterous schemes and escapades. An insinuatingly friendly man named Rabbit plies him with hallucinogenic pills; he also gets to have out-of-this-world sex with the breathtaking Daisy (Marilyn); Emily (Amelia) enlists him in her plan to flee the island; and he hears sinister stories about a man called the Magician, who owns and runs this inviting yet menacing paradise. Before long, there are violent incidents and grisly deaths.

Meanwhile, back in the States, we learn more about Superman's former family. The portraits of young Ben; his "Granny French," who takes over his upbringing; and his absentee mother, the beauty-queen-turned-hippie Alexa, are the funniest and most affecting parts of the book. Childress provides a particularly skillful account of Alexa. Having deftly skewered her vapidity and egotism in some very funny scenes, he later shows us, with more sympathy, how a once-loving wife became such a wreck.

Superman's island adventures, however, which make up the larger portion of the novel, are another story--in more ways than one. All too soon, they begin to pall--for the reader, anyway. The island's celebrities, ranging from the aforementioned screen legend and aviatrix to Jimmy Hoffa and D.B. Cooper, have less depth of character than cardboard mock-ups. A couple of natives whom our hero encounters are, of course, full of morally and ecologically correct folk wisdom, not to mention some valuable secrets of white magic.

But the weakest character of all is Superman himself, who could well serve as a textbook illustration of the term "airhead." Childress, who's made a name for himself as a Southern humorist in novels like "Crazy in Alabama," doesn't even fully exploit his protagonist's shallowness as an opportunity for humor or satire. Instead, he presents Superman's story as a kind of Bildungsroman about a man caught up in the externals of fame and fortune who learns there are more important things in life.

But insofar as Superman has already grown weary of stardom before landing on the island, there is not much in the way of enlightenment for him to assimilate. His bizarre adventures lack either philosophical or psychological significance. The only person who in any way experiences some kind of growth is Ben Jr., and his story is not enough to save "Gone for Good" from inconsequentiality.

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