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Greek Lam

DEAD PHILADELPHIANS: A Novel;\o7 By Frank Frost; (Capra Press: 340 pp., $14.95 paper)\f7

July 18, 1999|PETER GREEN | Peter Green is the author of three historical novels. The most recent, "The Laughter of Aphrodite," Sappho's fictional memoirs, was reissued in 1993 by the University of California Press

In a coastal village of southwestern Crete, called Kali Vrisi, "the beautiful spring," a full-blown Cretan wedding is underway. The lambs have been butchered and spit-roasted over red-hot pits. Their intestines have been metamorphosed into the wonderful twisted sausages known as kokoretsi. Wine, ouzo and that triple-distilled Cretan killer tsikoudhia are flowing like water. A bouzouki band is playing, and a young Greek American called Thanassi has been dancing. A simple giant named Yanni, who goes up the mountains with the agility of a wild goat, is helping out at table. It is summer, and the village is full of German tourists. The details are absolutely authentic, and the writing of this bravura set-piece is superb: I don't think I've ever read a description that so perfectly captured the smells, sounds, colors and intricate social relationships of rural Greece.

It is also not quite the simple and uncomplicatedly peaceful scene it might seem at first sight. Thanassi, real name Danny Castle, is on the run, variously, from the Mafia, the FBI, the Koreans and, more immediately, a group of East German professional killers. These last include a muscle-bound giggling child molester, and a syringe-laden woman doctor with the instincts of a scorpion. Back in Los Angeles, Danny and a group of friends had found out about a projected mob payoff of more than half a million dollars and, for a lark, decided to hijack it. This they did with some brio, disguising one of their number as a Latino air hostess and doing a quick bag-switch in an airport bus.

The swag turns out to include not only the cash, in hundred-dollar bills (the "dead Philadelphians" of Frank Frost's title) but a stack of bearer bonds, also with Philadelphian connections, and a face value of $12 million, no less. High stakes here. Foolish Johnnie Z. tries for a quick cash-in, is arrested and fingers Danny. Danny is railroaded, won't talk and gets four years in the slammer. While there, he has time to meditate on life, his Greek heritage, how to dodge the mob and how to organize his cache when he gets out. He meets a fellow con, a wily Greek banker. He takes lessons in economics and Greek history and literature from a fun professor called Barbara Johnson. On his early release they wind up in bed. Danny is lucky over sex. He also makes a Brit air hostess, who teaches him games with names like Riding Academy and Bad Boys at Winchester. Most surprisingly, he's awoken in the small hours after that Cretan wedding by a local 17-year-old with the energy and appetites of a Messalina. South Cretan virgins have obviously learned a lot since I was there last.

So Danny, having gotten out of jail before his various pursuers are expecting it, safe in the knowledge that his share of the loot is distributed through 18 banks in deposits of less than $10,000 each (no federal reporting required), takes off for the corner of Crete from which his family had emigrated, and in a shy, diffident way starts reinserting himself into the village life of his ancestors. There's a fascinating, cunningly worked change of pace here.

The action in the States is marked by speed, violence, corruption. There are dockyard rackets, sweating mobsters, kung fu experts. One of these, Moon, is crushed to death by a giant barbell in the garage of Danny's friend Goomba, a former pro quarterback and current P.I. The air is heady with sophisticated, and criminal, Californian land-deals.

But the minute Danny arrives in Kali Vrisi, everything slows down. He is the newcomer in town, a Greek American with a rented car. The great game of finding out about him by skillful interrogation begins. He refuses to boast, tactfully retires early when the priest and policeman try to get him drunk. His mother ran a restaurant in the States, so he helps out in the Kali Vrisi taverna, cutting up country salads. Later he takes over the taverna's vegetable garden, moves in on an old neighbor with goats and hens, buys eggs, spit-roasts chickens, impresses Manoli the taverna owner. (The fact that he seemingly has to work also discourages the women planning to marry him off to their daughters.) He makes friends with simple Yanni, is taken by him to an almost unreachable Shangri-La high in the mountains, a meadow with goats, running water, and, to his astonishment, a cave with ancient dedications inscribed "to the Nymph" and an encrusted bronze statue-group still in place.

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