Teeth of the Dog

Jill Ciment, Author, Bergner, Author
Jill Ciment, Author, Bergner, Author Crown Publishers $22 (224p) ISBN 978-0-517-70202-4
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Ciment's (Half a Life) multilayered novel is a taut, intelligent literary thriller in which character and fate, and a yawning chasm of cultural differences, unite to cause tragedy. Distinguished anthropologist Thomas Strauss and his substantially younger wife, Helene, do not find much paradise in paradise, the Melanesian island of Vanduu. What they do find is a complex, frequently paradoxical culture where religious betel addicts have crimson-colored teeth, Rambo is available in Hindi and hotels all offer air-conditioning but not necessarily electricity. Also on Vanduu is Finster, a young, stoned-out American opportunist who, functioning as Miss Lonelyhearts of Oceania, imports cheap Woolworth perfume to sell to the Vanduuans as the ultimate aphrodisiac. With Thomas dying of prostate cancer, Helene loving him but yearning for physical attention and Finster wanting someone--anyone--Ciment creates a situation ripe for disaster. Increasingly menacing events occur: Thomas is stoned by villagers after he accidentally kills a child, and Helene finds herself in a run-for-your-life situation. Unfortunately for her, she learns that her presumed refuge, the U.S. consulate, is a virtual closed door: with Marcos no longer controlling the Philippines, Vanduu is the U.S.'s proposed new strategic ally in the Pacific, and placating the islanders takes precedence over Helene's safety. Ciment uses the island's physical isolation to reflect her characters' emotional insularity and to emphasize their role as outsiders in a dangerous atmosphere. When Helene, in mounting panic, turns to Finster for rescue, drink, drugs and sex complicate their plans. This ultimately sad and knowing tour of human frailty will serve to secure Ciment's reputation for intelligent themes and uncompromising prose. (Mar.)
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