Deford's 'Adonis' -- dancing with reincarnation

October 21, 2001|By Laura Lippman | By Laura Lippman,Sun Staff

The Other Adonis, by Frank Deford. Sourcebooks. 331 pages. $24.

The average Baltimorean -- and I like to think I am very much the average Baltimorean -- probably knows enough about local-boy-made-good Frank Deford to provide a thumbnail sketch. Gilman grad, one-time setter of duckpins, Evening Sun copy boy who became best known for his sportswriting. A weekly commentator on National Public Radio, but also a writer of some breadth -- several novels and a memoir, about the death of his daughter from cystic fibrosis.

But a little knowledge really is a dangerous thing, so I don't want to reach or to infer too much about how any of those details might have informed Deford's latest novel, The Other Adonis. Just let me say that the reader is advised to take the book's subtitle -- "A Novel of Reincarnation" -- at face value. For beneath its swift, almost glib prose and conventional thriller trappings, this is a palpably sincere book with a lot on its mind -- not only reincarnation, but spirituality, true love and the art of Peter Paul Rubens.

With its light manner and serious subject matter, the book is not unlike one of its main characters, Bucky, a smooth charmer who cracks wise quite a bit. But he ultimately confesses to his psychiatrist, Nina, that he believes he may have been reincarnated. He believes he recognizes himself in Rubens' portrait of Venus and Adonis, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And, although he's been happily married for quite some time, he believes he is destined to be with another woman -- Constance, the presumptive Venus to his Adonis. They may, in fact, be "Double Ones" -- soulmaters who keep reuniting over the ages.

Nina is cautiously open-minded. Her own long-lost love, who happens to be a Lutheran minister, rejects the whole idea as nonsense. But as Nina helps Bucky explore this strange notion, she is drawn into a compelling mystery with just enough twists to keep the reader off-balance. (One of those twists has been used in the service of at least one film on reincarnation. But it's not a well-known film, so it should come as a surprise to most.)

Usually, I don't worry about how to classify books, but The Other Adonis poses the question: What is this? It builds suspense well, but hardboiled mystery readers may find it too romance-laden for their tastes. Yet it is more interested in love than it is in romance. The Other Adonis touches on a famous painting, but not in a way that would satisfy the fans of Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

In the end, the subtitle should serve as warning to the skeptics in the crowd. The Other Adonis is a novel of reincarnation. I haven't a clue why Deford wrote it, or why he's drawn to this subject. I'm not even sure he's a believer. But I have no doubt that he has an open mind when it comes to "Double Ones."

Laura Lippman is a reporter in The Sun's Baltimore County bureau. Her sixth novel, In a Strange City, has just been published by William Morrow.

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