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Sick joke

September 23, 2007|Diana Wagman

IN Matt Marinovich's debut novel, "Strange Skies" (HarperPerennial: 226 pp., $13.95 paper), the protagonist, Paul, pretends to have cancer to avoid conceiving a child with his wife of four years. He then has to lie to everyone else, which, he discovers, has its benefits: at the office, with his relatives and in his sudden ability to attract and seduce other women.

In one creepy and wonderful early scene, Paul is in his oncologist's examining room awaiting the results of a biopsy when he hears the doctor give the young woman in the next room bad news. Paul listens to her sobbing. It's a powerful moment, and in comforting the woman as they leave the doctor's office, Paul learns that saying "I have cancer, too" gets results.

What a funny and irreverent premise for a novel. And fraught, because lying about one's health cannot go on forever. Unfortunately, "Strange Skies" begins to fall apart about the same time as Paul's tapestry of lies. He meets Brenda, a woman with a young son dying of leukemia.

The kid is precocious, of course, and wise beyond his years. Paul falls in love with both child and mother, the family he did not want with his wife, but as he does, Marinovich's novel, which was surprising and nuanced, becomes clich├ęd, undeveloped, written in a kind of shorthand. The breakup between Paul and his wife takes a page. Brenda's ex-husband is a caricature, a Minnesotan Tony Soprano.

Paul says directly to the reader, "I won't bore you with the usual invalid crap. You've seen someone die, right?" Right, but not these characters, not the way Marinovich could show us. And finally, the deaths that end this story just seem like more lies.

-- Diana Wagman

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