cover image Desire: 1

Desire: 1

Hugo Claus. Viking Books, $24.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-670-86746-2

Abandoning their comfortable bar stools at the Unicorn, two small-time gamblers leave Belgium and light out for the States with their sights set on winning some serious money in Las Vegas. Prolific Antwerp novelist Claus (The Sorrow of Belgium) gives the biblical Jacob story a new twist, presenting a humorous yet tragic tale of desires unsatisfyingly met. The players here include Jake (an obese, slow-witted, sympathetic man with ""a heart like honeycake,"" a mentally retarded daughter and a bitter, hyper-religious wife); Michel (an all-around small timer who thinks hitting Vegas is his one shot at the action his life desperately needs); and Rickabone, a legendary figure at the Unicorn whose vaunted past haunts Jake and Michel. Claus turns many nice phrases here (on successful gambling: ""It's gotta flow. Like a rich, velvety gulp of milk""), and the authenticity of his bar chatter makes you want to order a round yourself; but, sadly, Jake and Michel remain two-dimensional characters. Like their attempts to emulate their mythical hero, Rickabone, the story of their big trip never lives up to expectations. (Dec.)