cover image By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee

By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee

Tama Janowitz. Crown Publishers, $23 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-517-70298-7

Maud Slivenowicz, the smartass 19-year-old narrator of this painfully precious novel, can flirt only by expounding on the sex lives of invertebrates. She lives in Upstate New York, in a trailer home near the banks of Lake Gitchee Gumee, with her mother, Evangeline, and her four siblings, all sired by different fathers. Six-year-old Leopold cooks and worries about his figure, while the eldest, would-be Hollywood heartthrob Pierce, is too dumb to read road signs. Evangeline tends to be irresponsible, ordering a $1000 vacuum because she likes the salesman. Into this loony bin walks a fey English lord who falls for the myopic Maud. He seems ready to whisk her away from her life of white trash when a kidnapping propels the family--in two groups--toward Los Angeles. The novel then morphs into a spoofy road saga, in which Maud, Pierce and Leopold set out to prostitute their way west. Janowitz (The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group) affects a narrative voice similar to those she previously has used to mixed effect; here, though, her striving for arch wackiness achieves only shrill petulance (""I realized I hated him, and he was loathsome, due to the fact that he was pathetic""). Equally awkward are arbitrary footnotes and haphazard allusions to, and quotations from, early American poetry. The dialogue and incidents dart rapid-fire at the reader as in a screwball comedy--but the screws here are loose, and what aims to be funny comes off as merely frantic. Author tour. (Sept.)