cover image The California Book of the Dead

The California Book of the Dead

Tim Farrington. Pocket Books, $23 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-671-51960-5

Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City meets the hopes and harsh realities of the 1990s in Farrington's amiable and well-written, if derivative, debut novel. Set in San Francisco, this episodic tale of a loosely connected set of characters centers around Marlowe, a bright but disillusioned painter who is mourning the death from AIDS of her best friend and former housemate. Marlowe's other housemates include her lesbian lover, Daa (formerly Sheila Swenson), a body worker named Jack, the embodiment of sensitive New Age masculinity, and Marlowe's young Southern cousin, Sheba. Sheba has come to San Francisco seeking enlightenment, only to be followed by her former fiance, Victor, who wants to lure her back East to marriage and motherhood. While Marlowe grapples with her friend's death, she also finds herself losing her commitment to her lover of the past decade and feeling tempted back to the heterosexuality she apparently abandoned for political reasons. True to the spirit of the times, death and disaster shadow the characters' search for spiritual and romantic fulfillment. Farrington offers, for example, a fictionalized version of a real-life tragedy that rocked the Buddhist community a few years back, presenting a revered Tibetan Buddhist teacher, ""Dak Dzin,"" who knowingly infects male and female followers with H.I.V. While Farrington manages a good-natured satire of contemporary California dreaming and spiritual questing, many scenes and descriptions are obvious and cliched. The conclusion is especially disappointing and emotionally off-key, as Marlowe switches back to heterosexuality and the rest of the cast slip back into the well-detailed yet familiar types from which they never quite emerge. (May)