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Streets With No Name

CITY, A Novel, By Alessandro Baricco , Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Alfred A. Knopf: 326 pp., $25

June 02, 2002|JANE CIABATTARI | Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire" and a contributing editor to Parade magazine.

"Silk," a pared-down fable of a love story, elegant and spare, with the soulful undertones of an operatic aria, put the Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco on the American literary map when it was published here in 1997. Set in the 1860s, it tells the story of a Frenchman who travels to Japan to purchase silkworm eggs and develops an unrequited love for a warlord's concubine. "Silk" reads like an obsessive dream.

Baricco's next novel, "Ocean Sea" (1999), was a dreamily lyrical historical novel about a painter, a professor, a beautiful woman, a young girl who is dying and a sailor driven mad by what he has seen. As in "Silk," Baricco's knowledge of opera and philosophy added a rich counterpoint to the work.

"City," Baricco's new novel, is neither spare nor lyrical. The first novel Baricco has set in America and in contemporary times is an overstuffed and rapid-fire phantasmagoria of competing stories that edge one another off the page. There's a western, a boxing story about an underdog training to become a world champ, the story of a barber who cuts hair free on Thursdays and of a kid who plays basketball, all overridden by a cunning "Harold and Maude"-style love story between an isolated boy genius and a loner named Shatzy Shell.

"City" begins with a telephone call. Gould, the 13-year-old genius, calls the hotline of CRB, the company that publishes a cartoon about Ballon Mac, "a blind superhero who works as a dentist by day and at night battles Evil using the special powers of his saliva." Gould's call is answered by 30-year-old Shatzy from Pomona, a temp whose job it is to find out how readers of the 22-year-old series feel about the next twist in the plot. The question she asks him: Should the mother of Ballon Mac die? Shatzy ends up being fired for staying on the line too long and accepts Gould's offer to be his governess.

Gould is a virtual orphan: His father is in the Army, his mother in a psychiatric institution in Topeka. His fate was cast at age 6, when he was discovered to have an IQ of 180. At 11, he graduated from college in theoretical physics. His father flew in by helicopter from the military base for the ceremonies, at which the rector said, "You, Gould, are a billiard ball, and you run between the cushions of knowledge tracing the infallible trajectory that will let you, with our joy and sympathy, roll gently into the pocket of fame and success

Shatzy is a bizarre loner, too. In a yellow bag with a "Save the Planet Earth From Painted Toenails" logo, she carries framed photos of Walt Disney and Eva Braun and a tape recorder into which she is dictating her life work, a western featuring twin 63-year-old sisters who can shoot two holes through the jack of hearts when you throw a deck of cards into the air.

Shatzy moves right into Gould's fantasy world. She accommodates Diesel and Poomerang, even buys a yellow trailer large enough for Diesel to fit in so they can travel. "Let's go see the world, Gould," she says, and she gives him his first kiss, an innocent one. She discovers Gould's secrets--like the fantasy boxing matches he narrates, usually while in the bathroom. The boxing story pits Larry "the Lawyer" Gorman against all comers, with a trainer whose motto is "Boxing: Do It If You're Hungry."

Most effective is Mondrian Kilroy, Baricco's caricature of a professor. His specialty is a lecture on Monet's "Water Lilies," which sets out to prove that Monet's goal was to paint nothingness. Kilroy's masterwork, "the definitive and redeeming refutation of whatever I have written, write, or will write," has caused him to vomit from time to time; it is a six-point "Essay on Intellectual Honesty" scribbled on the back of a program from a porn-video booth. Shatzy is the one who sees how lonely life is for Gould, "a genius who wets his bed at night and is afraid if someone on the street asks him what time it is, and hasn't seen his mother for years and listens to his father Friday nights on the telephone and will never go up to a girl ...." Her influence is what gives him the courage to pick up a soccer ball for the first time and to take off on his own, instead of accepting a fellowship to a European university where he would continue his narrow life.

Baricco has inventiveness in spades, and his freaks have the capacity to chill the blood or warm the heart. He treats his stories as neighborhoods and his characters as streets in his impressionistic city. The stories intersect at seemingly random moments, sometimes mid-chapter, but these quick shifts don't always work. It's too easy to get lost. Perhaps another draft would have given "City" the combination of poetry and philosophical depth that distinguished his previous work, but this American experiment is too fragmented to be fully satisfying.

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