Damascus

Richard Beard, Author Arcade Publishing $23.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-55970-460-1
Good-natured, witty and freshly inventive, Beard's second novel (after X20: A Novel of (Not) Smoking) provides a thoughtful romp. He has chosen one day, November 1, 1993, in which the lives of an odd assortment of people across Britain come together in surprising and unexpected ways. On that fateful date, many years after they first met as children and thereafter engaged in a purely telephonic relationship, proletarian Spencer Kelley and bourgeois Hazel Burns finally meet again, fall into bed and must decide whether to stay together. Meanwhile, Hazel's spoiled-rotten, emotionally unbalanced, long-distance student, Henry Mitsui, has resolved, ex nihilo, that she is his destined bride--a decision he means to enforce via a packet of poison. And William, an elderly gentleman in Spencer's care, is so terrified by life's immense incertitude (one of this book's major themes) that he is unable to leave his house. All of the characters are desperate for a ""Damascus,"" i.e., a life-changing event that lifts one out of the burden of making decisions. Their lives conjoin on this day in a happily absurd scene over a pool-side billiard table. Bits of Hazel's and Spencer's childhoods are interspersed like time-lapse photos into the narrative as they converge toward the present. Beard renders the logically fractured, desultory nature of children's speech with charming verisimilitude. Each flashback is distinguished by the device of a shift to present tense, with the strange counterfactual heading, ""It is the first of November 1993...,"" followed by strings of alternative circumstances. All but 12 of the book's nouns, the reader is told in an acknowledgment, are drawn from the Times of London of that date, as if the book were a 12-tone composition or a Futurist painting with feet visible in all positions at once. Beard's manipulation of language and of events in order to make the thematic point sometimes mitigates the credibility of the characters' motivations; still, the brilliance and daring of his work earns the reader's appreciation. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 03/01/1999
Release date: 03/01/1999
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