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Book Review

When Primitive and Civilized Worlds Collide

TEETH OF THE DOG; by Jill Ciment; Crown $22, 216 pages

April 05, 1999|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Please look up 'Paradise' in your dictionary and you will find as one of its definitions, Vanduu. A small, splendific--just mix splendid and terrific--island south of the Philippines and north of New Guinea, with palm-fringed beaches and a boogie-on-down capital with sumptuous restaurants and swinging nightclubs. Get those disco shoes out!"

This charmingly ingenuous come-on from a 10-page, handwritten, mimeographed brochure was one of the things that led Thomas and Helene Strauss to take a trip to the Melanesian island of Vanduu. But what sounded so appealing in New York turns out to be a lot less winsome when they actually get there.

Vanduu, the fictitious island that is the setting of Jill Ciment's tightly written novel, "Teeth of the Dog," is no paradise, nor even a "paradise lost." It is a paradise ruined, a triste little corner of the tropics beset by all the unpleasant side effects of modern society--pollution, poverty, drug dealing and canned meat--but without the convenience or efficiency. In many ways, this hapless little island has the worst of both worlds.

Ciment's Vanduu also embodies other aspects of many Third World settings. It is divided into three nations: On the eastern side is Vanduu itself, "a hodgepodge of cultures . . . famous for its temples . . . its psychosurgeries, its sex shows . . . its coral beaches and viridescent sea." On the western side is Kuantong, a peaceable Muslim enclave transformed into a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism. And to the north, Minaphor is an independent city-state populated largely by ethnic Chinese and ruled by a Singapore-style despot.

The principal characters are quite as skillfully delineated. Thomas Strauss is a distinguished anthropologist who's made his name writing about what happens when "primitive" and "civilized" worlds collide. (His signature opus, "The Origin of Trash," postulates that the difference between primitive and civilized societies is that the former only use what they need, while the latter generate mountains of waste.) Now in his 60s, suffering from cancer, he is accompanied by his much younger wife, Helene, an ex-stripper who is deeply devoted to him. Each, ironically, has undertaken the excursion in the mistaken belief that it will please the other. Helene hates the heat and humidity, but hopes the visit will be like a revivifying return to his old stomping grounds. Thomas no longer cares for this kind of adventure but wants to reassure his wife.

It soon becomes apparent that the trip was not a good idea. Beset by discomforts, they find themselves thrown into the company of one Adam Finster, a good-looking, drugged-out young American who has made Vanduu the base of his desultory but somewhat profitable dealings. "Actually," he remarks to the Strausses, "I see myself more in Conradian terms. A Kurtz without the horror . . ."

Something about Helene penetrates Finster's semi-permanent marijuana haze, leading him to fall in love with her, albeit in his shallow fashion. The Strausses, meanwhile, are beginning to suffer from the strain of their stressful "vacation." The stage is set for trouble, perhaps even disaster.

The author of three previous books, Ciment has crafted a tensely powerful story, lit by flashes of irony and wry humor. Like V.S. Naipaul and his ex-friend Paul Theroux, she has an impressive ability to evoke the peculiar qualities and atmosphere of a specific locale. Add to this her clear-eyed yet sympathetic portraits of characters, and the result is a novel rich in observation and insight.

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