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Book Review

'Gump' Author Takes Turn for the Lurid

SUCH A PRETTY, PRETTY GIRL; by Winston Groom; Random House $23.95, 306 pages

April 06, 1999|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To describe Winston Groom's career, we have to resort to the imagery of video games. Here he was, sailing along in a nice, serious groove--his Vietnam novel, "Better Times Than These," had been well received, and "Conversations With the Enemy" had been nominated for a Pulitzer--when something came whamming in from the side that . . . morphed him: made him bigger, gave him superpowers, but knocked him off course.

Call it "Forrest Gump."

That little throwaway book, and the movie made of it, hit a nerve in the way no author or publisher can predict, joggled the national consciousness, added a few phrases to the common language. After all that, what was Groom, still a young man with plenty of writing left in him, to do next?

Well, he wrote a couple of spinoffs, "Gump & Company" and "Gumpisms: The Wit and Wisdom of Forrest Gump." He wrote a serious work of Civil War history, "Shrouds of Glory," about the 1864 Battle of Franklin, Tenn. And now he's written an odd, half-Hollywood, half-New York mystery in which an Oscar-winning screenwriter is the detective and there's nary a dead body to be found--just a live body with fatal attractiveness.

It belongs to the pretty, pretty girl of the title, Delia Jamison, who 20 years ago had an affair with the screenwriter Johnny Lightfoot when he was a struggling novelist. Now, "of a certain age" but still beautiful, she's the top TV news anchor in Los Angeles, newly married to a San Francisco software tycoon. Johnny happens to meet her at a restaurant where he's discussing his latest script with a producer. She gives off an enticing mix of signals. She's a lot friendlier than he expected, considering how cruelly she had dumped him back when. And she seems to be in trouble.

Delia is being blackmailed. Somebody with knowledge of her past and a cache of compromising photos is demanding that she do sexy little things on the air, just for him. For fear of scandal, she doesn't want to call the police. She asks Johnny to check out her other ex-lovers. The blackmailer must be one of them, she says, because of a reference to something she used to do in bed. She won't say what, and Johnny, despite his own experience in that regard, can't guess.

Against his better judgment, Johnny accepts the assignment. Though he should be satisfied with what he has--money, fame, a prospective new girlfriend--he has never gotten over Delia. And neither, he discovers, have her other exes, who range from a U.S. senator to Wall Street heavyweights to a gossip columnist to a Mafia-connected lawyer to an Ivy League professor to bartenders at sleazy Manhattan clubs ("Nobody got last names down here"). Plenty of men remember her well enough to want to hurt her.

Any la belle dame sans merci story should be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion. The anger that's aimed at the woman has been diverted from its real target: the man who tells it, chagrined at his own stupidity. Johnny, at least, seems aware that his cross-country sleuthing on Delia's behalf (through a strange geography in which the San Fernando Valley is "near Sacramento," Highway 1 from Santa Barbara to Big Sur runs beside the Santa Monica Mountains, and one can travel east from Denver by train though the Colorado River gorge) is a form of self-punishment.

Groom, in fact, is at his best with wry, rueful Johnny, who turns a mean one-liner: "People are always telling you to keep your ear to the ground, but they often fail to tell you it's not a very dignified position." The stories of Delia's other lovers, who differ even about what her favorite color was, make the search for her "real" self as absorbing as the search for the blackmailer. We expect Groom to say something fairly profound, in the end, about the multiplicity of the human personality, its ultimate unknowability.

And we're disappointed. The climax of "Such a Pretty, Pretty Girl" is not only lurid and cheesy--we can accept that in a mystery--but seems tacked on, without much relevance to what's come before. The story, like Delia herself, proves to be a tease, and, like Johnny, we regret having put in the time.

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