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Seduced by a literary original

Christopher: A Tale of Seduction, Allison Burnett, Broadway Books: 260 pp., $13.95 paper

June 22, 2003|Robin Russin | Robin Russin, a filmmaker, is co-author of "Screenplay: Writing the Picture" and is a professor of screenwriting at UC Riverside.

"'Rumor has it that there's a superb Greek diner in the area,' I crooned. 'Do you know where?' I knew exactly where the Parnassus was, of course (a playful snapshot of me was tacked above the cash register), but I wanted to prolong our intercourse.

" 'Sure,' the boy said, 'Right on the corner. But I'm not sure it's superb.' Then he smiled at his door in a way that said, 'Enough, ye pest, be gone.'

"I smiled back in a way that said, 'You haven't seen the last of me, dearie. Not by a long shot.' "

With this, Allison Burnett introduces his unlikely hero, B.K. Troop, to 25-year-old Christopher Ireland, the book's title character and B.K.'s new object of lust. It is January 1984, and B.K., a dissipated, middle-aged homosexual, has just moved in next door. While the dire Orwellian prophecies associated with that date seem to fizzle under a drab New York blanket of snow, the new year brings young Christopher -- a handsome and decidedly heterosexual would-be writer -- under the intense and decidedly un-big-brotherly scrutiny of his new neighbor.

Set against a mid-'80s brew of politics, self-help movements and the last gasp of the age of sexual freedom, the book is divided into 12 chapters -- one for each month of the year -- and relates B.K.'s hilarious, archly supercilious, first-person account of his growing crush on Christopher and his quest to seduce him. A self-admitted failure as a human being -- paunchy, alcoholic, jaded, erudite without ambition and above all lonely -- B.K. nonetheless possesses boundless optimism in his stooping to conquer. After all, he knows a thing or two about seduction: "I had experienced the Swingin' Sixties in the full flower of my manhood. I had soul-kissed a Black Panther, taken a bubble bath with one of the Weathermen, been fed an acid-soaked Communion wafer by a boy-mad priest named Father Corky." The fact that Christopher is straight is no deterrence. As B.K. opines, "Sexual preference is not and never has been an exact science."

With the patience of a trap-door spider, B.K. studies his prey, lying in wait: "I overheard quite a bit of what went on in his cell. Plus, as a committed smoker of cigarettes, I left my front door ajar during waking hours, rendering me privy to a great deal of what Mr. Marcel Proust would have called la vie d'escalier."

At last he sets his snares. A literary snob with a library of alphabetized and largely stolen fine first editions, B.K. presents himself as a benevolent mentor, helping Christopher through a writer's block caused by his recent divorce and gorgonish psychiatrist mother. A connoisseur of cheap wines, B.K. enlists the fruit of the vine in his assault -- "I poured him a jelly jar of my best Cabernet Reserve (accents of cheddar; dastardly snap of horseradish)." He invites him on a date to an all-male version of Arthur Schnitzler's "La Ronde" in the hopes of stirring Christopher's blood and breaking down his resistance.

But each stratagem leads only to disappointment, as B.K. runs up against the rock of Christopher's idealism and his unshakeable orientation toward women. B.K. can only watch, fulminating in misery, as Christopher's affections turn toward the buxom, emotionally abused wife of the owner of the aforementioned Greek diner. B.K. sees his own adopted role of mentor usurped by a disillusioned political campaigner and an EST-like New Age guru. Much of the book's fun comes from the lengths to which B.K. goes to achieve an intimacy that can exist only in his fantasies, and from his comically tormented refusal to accept the fact that his "beloved" often will not abide him, much less succumb to him.

The novel loses some steam when it shifts to Christopher's state of mind. We learn of his battles with his mother, his failed marriage, his brief affair with a friend's wife; however, precisely because Christopher is an earnest, if troubled, young man, he is far less interesting than the manic depressive, predatory B.K. Christopher is also without much true talent, as reflected in the changing title of his stillborn novel, from "First Love" to the fatuous "Love's Sad Archery." But these sections do serve a purpose: it is Christopher's persistent, idealistic earnestness that defeats not only his pursuer's schemes but also, poignantly, B.K.'s own self-loathing. As the droll but forlorn narrator shifts his attention to the young man's problems, a strange thing happens: B.K.'s lust evolves into a frighteningly unfamiliar emotion: real love, however stubbornly platonic.

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