FAIR WARNING

Robert Olen Butler, Author
Robert Olen Butler, Author . Grove/Atlantic $24 (240p) ISBN 0-87113-833-6
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Incisively frank and permeated with chilly wit, Butler's latest novel preserves his reputation for disquieting fiction, but takes too big a risk with a protagonist who typifies the coldly appraising world in which she moves. Amy Dickerson is the high-powered star auctioneer at Nichols and Gray, a prestigious New York auction house. She rakes in millions by exploiting with shocking candor the "shopping pheromones" of her buyers. Her unerring ability to gauge the value of inanimate objects also influences her ideas of the "worth" of her personal relationships; she has dissolved several romantic liaisons on discovering each lover's fatal flaw. Amy still suffers from what she perceives as lack of affection from her late, domineering father, a cattle breeder in Houston. She also has trouble relating to her married sister, whom her father adored, and her mother, a Texas matron who deplores Amy's unmarried state. Amy's self-assured existence becomes unsettled when two men court her simultaneously. One is a client she has a brief affair with (and whose presence in the plot is a frustrating non sequitur); the other is a suave and fabulously wealthy Frenchman who buys Nichols and Gray and seems set to acquire Amy as well. In delineating Amy's cynical view of the world, Butler (Mr. Spaceman) dissects the acquisitive nature of people whose need to collect objets d'art defines their lives. Yet Amy's narrow escape from becoming an acquisition herself leaves a sour taste. Maybe it's because her tough carapace is only briefly breached—by sexual attraction rather than human warmth—and her lack of tenderness alienates her from the reader. With that fair warning, the novel is a clever and provocative narrative about a society obsessed with the trappings of money and prestige. Agent, Kim Witherspoon. 11-city author tour. (Jan.)

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