NORTH OF PATAGONIA

Johnny Payne, Author
Johnny Payne, Author . Northwestern Univ./ TriQuarterly $24.95 (245p) ISBN 978-0-8101-5121-5
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This entertaining fourth novel is the work of a master ventriloquist, its fragmented episodes a shifting kaleidoscope of memories and experiences. Clay Justin is the central figure, a gone-to-seed boxer from Kentucky with a penchant for philosophical rumination. In taut and spare prose reminiscent of James Cain's, we learn about Clay's boxing career and his even more rugged personal life, which includes his ex-girlfriend K elly and their seven-year-old daughter, Chandra. Kelly, who is critical of but respects Clay, is writing a romance novel whose protagonist shares Clay's name and whose events parallel and at times seem to determine those that Clay lives through. Like a nesting doll, Clay's life fits into Kelly's novel, which is interlarded with the narrative, so that the border between reality and fantasy becomes blurred, and the voice alternates between third and first person. The more hilarious passages involve Clay's friend Balboa Trafalgar, an extravagant physician with a weakness for drugs and women, who has gone missing without leaving a trace. From the world of Kentucky horse racing to the Chicago boxing milieu where he must unwillingly confront boxer Tadeusz Virkowicz, a formidable mauler, for his last fight, Clay journeys in space and time. The narrative's complex weave of plot within plot amounts to a potent satire on love, which occasionally descends into caricature and weak humor. But the tale of these colorful characters, the lessons they learn and the qualified harmony they reach is at once psychologically insightful and moving. (May)

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