cover image A Vaudeville of Devils

A Vaudeville of Devils

Robert Girardi. Delacorte Press, $24.95 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-385-33397-9

""Without God, friend, the world is a vaudeville of devils. An absurd carnival full of people fornicating to no purpose and shooting each other over a joke."" The speaker, an incidental character in one of the seven long stories in Girardi's (Madeline's Ghost) fine collection, illustrates the refulgent and violent vortex in which many of the protagonists operate. The men in these tales must often make all-important, sometimes split-second decisions, and make them alone, finding themselves in a moral vacuum. In ""The Demons Tormenting Untersturmf hrer Hans Otto Graebner,"" an SS officer must choose between exterminating or sparing the ""subversive"" Belgian artist James Ensor, in whom he recognizes extraordinary gifts. Tom, a top executive of a semiconductor company in ""Three Ravens on a Red Ground,"" will either profit from inevitable takeover by a Japanese firm or stand by the hundreds of employees who will lose their jobs; in counterpoint runs the interpolated story of Tom's ancestor, a brave and virtuous knight pledged to a doomed but noble cause. Not all of the protagonists' choices are as ethically unambiguous. The post-apocalyptic father in ""Arcana Mundi"" regrets his decision to relinquish his clairvoyant young daughter to the tutelage of two disturbingly cerebral mystics, irreversibly severing his human bond with her. And in ""Dinner at Contessa Pasquali's,"" a man realizes the frightening degree to which his Neapolitan wife has manipulated him into marriage. Does his choice to remain with her reveal deeply sympathetic love or a surrender to fate? Touched with a near-maddening mysteriousness, and enriched by lavish historical, dystopic and dream-like settings, these vividly detailed tales give voice to specters of the dark side. (May)