Building a tale upon this (Little) Rock

May 30, 1993|By Maude McDaniel

LIVING IN LITTLE ROCK

WITH MISS LITTLE ROCK.

Jack Butler.

Knopf.

655 pages. $25.

Let me count the ways I loved this book: 1. Meat. 2. Potatoes. 3. Vegetables, and 4. Sweets. It's the literary banquet of the year, and it ends with grace.

Yet for 200 pages it was an awful struggle. James Joyce meets Tom Wolfe, and for narrator a cutesy Holy Ghost, obviously counted on to rivet the troops with twinkling accounts of labor-intensive sex and rat-a-tat foul-mouth. ("Just the right shock of bad taste to set the blood going.") Spices by John Updike.

There are plenty of empty calories, too, in the soap-opera plot. Charles Morrison, a leading Little Rock, Ark., millionaire, married the person he truly loves, but just can't help fantasizing about everything else in skirts. Meanwhile, his wife Lianne -- an artist, one-time Miss Little Rock and TV personality -- seems to be coming to terms with the neurotic results of her abused childhood.

When quasi-political power struggles and psychotic sexual jealousy reach critical mass, the explosion destroys Charles' world -- and in the reflection of the state's 1981 Creation Science conflict -- he must create a new one. With help from his friends, including Jack Butler, a character in his own book, and of course, the Holy Ghost.

Let's get the obvious question out of the way at once: The city of Little Rock is prominent in the setting, but Bill Clinton shows up once or twice as just plain Bill and figures not at all in the story. That's a relief.

With all that going on in the beginning, I was starting to wonder if, perhaps, the Holy Ghost had come down with Second Book Syndrome. (It's Mr. Butler's sixth.) Then I noticed the writing. You could carbo-load on the stuff. Well past the half-literate opening with its amusing, self-conscious sleight-of-word ("I'm getting ahead of myself. As in fact, I am one of the few what can"), the Holy Ghost turns rampant, yeasty, teeming with -- could it be? -- ideas.

Here, on art: Lianne "might weep helplessly, overcome" after a day at the National Gallery. Charles "stood by, depressed at the burden, the waste of glory. . . . What was it for . . . such an unstoppable bilge of grandeur? . . . No human existed on that mighty a scale -- how was it then that we had made those treasures?"

But thankfully the Holy Ghost chooses to go slow on the outrageous dialect and mostly lets the story tell itself, even through sly newspage facsimiles, simultaneous broadcasts and innumerable computer windows into the workings of the human brains themselves. True, the HG natters on eternally, and sometimes seems shaky theologically (the chief end of this Holy Ghost may be to glorify humanity). However, with its "fractal" sense of humor, the Holy Ghost turns out to be the Comic, in addition to Whatever Else, in the Quaternity, revealed as the Trinity plus Miss Liza Jane.

Yes, some Christians might call this book blasphemous. Essentially, they would be mistaken, for blasphemy in its deepest reaches must depend on intention, and Mr. Butler's is just the opposite. In a literary world that refuses to hear a rational, linear Christian voice, Mr. Butler serves up a rambunctious postmodern feast of allusion, metaphor and pun, all aimed at taking a fresh look at your old beliefs -- or your rejection of old beliefs. There's a soupcon, again, of Mr. Updike, and of Peter DeVries and John Irving, but Mr. Butler's plate dares to find room for commitment, however singularly prepared. He does eat his vegetables.

As for the meat, it's rare, seared on the outside, red and bloody and screaming with pain inside, ram and lamb in all their biblical ++ significance conveyed by a phantom dog and the wise, hilarious tales of a Holy Ghost who is in no way the real one but pretty good for man-made.

Ms. McDaniel is a writer living in Cumberland.

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