Bye-bye Barney, so long dinosaurs -- step aside for caveperson chic

April 14, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

It was inevitable. The dinosaurs - life on earth before imaginable time - became increasingly anthropomorphized, sentimentalized, Hallmark-cardized, turned into deep-stained pillows and that disgustingly unctuous purple prude of eat-your-spinach television. There had to be something beyond.

Call it evolution.

Call it what you like, it is upon us. The something beyond is manifest in two books that are coming on like pterodactyls out of hell. They are "Almost Adam," by Petru Popescu (Morrow. 544 pages. $24) and "Neanderthal," by John Darnton (Random House, 368 pages. $24).

They are the breaking edge of a megatrend. They will make major movies and generate a whole new fad industry. I have just read them.

But, wait a minute. There already is, after all, a large body of genre fiction of just this sort of thing: wolf-pelt romances; you've seen them on book shop shelves. But no. These two books are not intended and aren't being marketed as new titles in that narrow fantasy niche. They are being presented as mainstream popular novels - "action adventure" is the term of the trade.

The stories are similar. Splendidly ethical scientists discover and mingle with bands of cavepersons, somehow suspended from further evolution, hidden away in obscure parts of Africa (Popescu) and West Asia (Darnton). (Actually the term caveperson is never used in either book; I am servilely trying to avoid an avalanche of Politically Correcting tut-mail.)

Protohuman gore

Everything is set in the present. There are evil forces afoot, and plots and counterplots abound, political, commercial, academic, personal. In both caveperson populations, there are Goodies and Baddies. That yields other dynamic conflicts and a lot of protohuman gore.

In Mr. Popescu's book, the "hominids" (the preferred term in both volumes, meaning the family of mammals that includes humans and all their evolutionary forebears) are throwbacks to 2 million years or so before. Mr. Darnton's Neanderthals, every school child will remember, thrived from 230,000 to 30,000 or so years ago then mysteriously disappeared.

Both books, like so many popular novels, offer much instructiveness, kandy-koated education. Throughout, there are lessons on a wide variety of subjects, including anthropology, paleontology, commercial poaching, cross-country survival navigation, bush medicine, post-colonial and post-Soviet politics and economics, and more. Much more. These tutorials are mingled in the plots, by not-quite-invisible weaving.

"Almost Adam" (you know what that means, like practically humankind's first forebear) is the longer and more intricate book, cluttered with anthropological speculations and triple layers of intrigues. It would be unkind to say the story line finally is a contrived piece of twaddle. But not so terribly inaccurate.

"Neanderthal" is a much more sophisticated read. The tone is far less breathless, more civilized. Mr. Darnton is confident, his prose wry, conscious of its capacity to enchant lightly.

The story line is more direct, the cast of characters far more manageable and convincing, free of clutter. The texture of the narrative is almost Edwardian. But the book slides tragically twaddleward as it gets deeply involved in thought transfer, remote viewing, ESP stuff.

"Almost Adam" has the great virtue of being straightforward entertainment. Unapologetically, it is a rollicking, attention-riveting long summer read. Little philosophical affectation here, no hi-lit pretensions.

In contrast, "Neanderthal" insistently offers an overarching metaphor: Evolution is essentially a climb toward evil. The main character puts it straight: "There is something you should know about Homo sapiens. ... That he is duplicitous. That he cheats. That he lies. And therefore that he always wins."

Then Mr. Darnton cannot resist pulling us out of the fire: "Think of it [modern man's duplicity] as the ability to create illusion and surprise. ... And then you are in the realm of art and magic and music and storytelling." Whew! Saved.

Both books, and thus the broader fad, are driven by an outspoken nostalgia for utter innocence: wistfulness, a sort of primordial sigh-fi.

And yes, to answer the question in some minds, in both books, humans do find cavepersons sexy - to extents that will remain unreported here.

After the aliens

Fads, popular movements, major shifts in style and social form are not invented. They emerge, rather, through the imagination and energy of a genius of perception: The folks are ready for it; bring it on.

Before today's dinosaurs, there were space aliens - that revolting little saccharine-dripping worm ET and the rest. Before that? I leave it to you.

But mark my word, their time has passed. The cavepersons are with us. And if you feel duty-bound to be eternally with it, have a look at one or both of these books. As entertainment fiction goes, they both have the capacity to take your mind off the leak in the roof for a sustained piece of time.

Discretion is at the heart of both books' deeper values. The surviving Good Guys and Good Gals destroy all evidence of the continuing existence of the cavepersons. They vow to take the secret of the remaining noble hominids to their graves rather than expose them to prying eyes, thus deceiving the entire world and their governments.

The Bad Guys are all dead, pretty horribly, so the secret is known only to this noble, tiny few - and you, Dear Reader. I am confident you won't tell a soul. Will you?

But quietly unload your dinosaur stock. Put your growth money in missing links. And remember, you heard it here first.

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