Shyster Saints

Take Five

by D. Keith Mano
Doubleday, 582 pp., $17.95

Dutch Shea, Jr.

by John Gregory Dunne
Linden Press/Simon and Schuster, 352 pp., $15.95

The hero as foulmouth is evidently a side effect of the new American middle-class puritanism, which thrives on being nonjudgmental verbally and is prissy on every topic except sex. So appalling is the unctuous discourse of everyday life, it is no wonder the novelists turn, through their protagonists, toward a vocabulary of obscenity and insult. The problem is once you’ve set up your profane and blasphemous hero, what do you do with him? An apparent solution—not particularly happy, but perhaps the best available—is to discover beneath his rough and bristling exterior that old cornball standby, the heart of gold. One is half ashamed even to mention it. Here we are creeping up on the twenty-first century, and we have nothing to fall back on except a convention that was hackneyed in the sixteenth.

Take Five by D. Keith Mano presents an unusual set of imbalances. It is painfully hard to get into and much too easy to get out of. The reader will be fore-warned to expect a certain number of infantile tricks from the fact that the book’s pages are numbered backward and the book’s chapters in reverse order; i.e., one begins at Book V, Chapter 7, and works remorselessly down the numerical scale. The “hero” also degenerates from a blustering, rambunctious, brutal exhibitionist to an insensible, impotent, incontinent bundle of infirmities. We are supposed to find him a good deal more attractive in his later stages than in his earlier ones; but it will be someone more patient than the average reader who puts up with the improbable antics of his prime long enough to appreciate the eloquent account of the last stages of his decline.

Simon Van Lynxx (the name alone warns us to expect a novel of caricature) is set before us as a genius movie producer with two award-winning shorts and a number of turkeys to his credit; surrounded by a menagerie of pickup associates, he inhabits a large van parked somewhere in the outskirts of New York City. His current project, for which he hasn’t bothered to write a script (or, in the cant of his trade, a “treatment”) is a pop-satiric version of the Gospels, Jesus 2001. Perhaps fortunately, filming of this epic never gets any further than a few pictures of a recalcitrant donkey carrying a more than dubious virgin and child down a garden path. For Simon is too much of a genius to bother with getting anything organized, and too busy with his own noisy, zany buffoonery to give anyone else the benefit of half a sentence. If he is an artist at all, he is a put-down artist; his loud mouth is stored with a rich assortment of racist and sexist slurs, plus an unfailing plethora of miscellaneous abuse for special occasions. He is a one-man Cloaca Maxima, Don Rickles with delusions of grandeur; and discharging all this contempt in a steady stream of one-liners leaves him little chance to display anything …

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