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From Tom Robbins, a Tangled CIA Plot and Quirky Characters

August 06, 2000|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There is never a dull moment or a dull character in "Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates," the latest audio book from Tom Robbins. (Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio, unabridged fiction, 10 cassettes, 16 hours and 15 minutes, $39.95, read by Keith Szarabajka.)

Switters is a fiercely intelligent, unabashedly eccentric CIA operative who will gleefully inform you of the popularity of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll within that government agency. He gladly partakes of all three, though he prefers sex with embarrassingly young women, and is more likely to belt out "Send in the Clowns" than anything on the Billboard charts. An intriguing dichotomy, Switters is a man who reads both Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine and Soldier of Fortune.

Little more than a glorified gofer for the CIA, Switters is sent into the Amazon to coerce another operative into remaining with the agency. His grandmother, a cyberhack with a penchant for takeout ethnic food, has blackmailed him into taking her parrot with him to Peru, because she wants it set free before she dies. Things don't work out quite as planned.

Not only does the parrot never taste freedom, but Switters ends up tasting the parrot. He is then nursed by a shaman with a pyramid-shaped head, forced into a wheelchair and eventually finds himself living with excommunicated nuns in an Eden-like oasis in the Middle East.

Tangled? You bet, but also fast-moving and a ton of fun. Robbins loves language and alliteration. He is seemingly unable to resist a pun. The author celebrates youth while employing colorful descriptions and a clever wit in his ongoing challenge of all things conventional. He deflates only as he unwinds. Robbins may maintain the momentum for most of the book, but the ending is a letdown, as he leaves too many loose ends.

Actor Keith Szarabajka effortlessly captures the plot's intense energy. His voice is just a teensy bit high and a tad unusual, which makes him a most interesting narrator. He has what this story most needs--charisma. You will absolutely chuckle out loud as he quotes cybergranny's aged parrot, which can only recite one sentence: "People of zee wurl, relax!"

Though Szarabajka takes too broad an approach with Switters' grandmother, who is too cranky to be real, he sounds appropriately vacuous when reading the part of the CIA operative's 16-year-old stepsister. Minor characters speak with accents, if ethnicity is specified. For instance, one of the defrocked sisters speaks with a pretty Irish brogue, another with a sophisticated French accent. The actor manages both with little trouble and avoids the pitfalls of trying to sound like a woman.

Though more than 16 hours long, the audio could go longer, and much of that is due to the narrator's verbal elan.

*

At the other end of the spectrum is an audio book that runs just six hours but seemed to go on forever.

"Not a Day Goes By," by E. Lynn Harris, continues the soap-opera-like lives of former football star John "Basil" Henderson and Broadway actress Yancey Braxton. He is a bisexual manipulator terrified of his sexuality, and about to marry Yancey, a money-grubbing manipulator who would do anything to get her name on a Broadway marquee. Neither is sympathetic and both deserve one another. (Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio, unabridged fiction, four cassettes, six hours, $25.95, read by Rocky Carroll.)

This is the fourth in a series of loosely connected novels. We last met Yancey and Basil in 1999's "Abide With Me." There is no need to have heard his past audio books, as Harris quickly encapsulates their lives in a sweeping prologue.

Harris is best summed up as an African American male version of Jackie Collins. In his world, characters spout cliches while draped in glamorous attire and sipping expensive wine. One may overlook such frivolity. In fact, one may even enjoy it in the same manner one enjoys the escapism of nighttime TV dramas. However, it is much more difficult to forgive the author's lack of depth as he makes horrendous comparisons between sexual organs and hot dogs.

Stereotypes abound. Yancey, a bronze-skinned beauty, would stab her mother in the back for a good role. And her mother, a drama queen right out of "Dynasty," would probably deserve it. Basil is a ladies' man, and a man's man, with an overly high regard of his own physique.

The really nice people in this potboiler of a romance are far less attractive or downright dumpy. On occasion, their grammar is purposely atrocious. This is intended, one supposes, to make them sound somewhat earthy and realistic. It does not work.

Though this type of genre writing is too simplistic to be truly enjoyable, actor Rocky Carroll does an exemplary job with the thin material. He concentrates on performance, not accents, while conveying the high drama of Yancey's machinations, and the pained hurt in Basil's voice when he learns of her deceptions.

His voice is smooth, moderately deep and quite lovely. Carroll may be able to lull a listener into the story more readily than the hackneyed prose of E. Lynn Harris.

*

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

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