cover image The Planets

The Planets

Jennifer Finney Boylan, James Finney Boylan. Poseidon Press, $18.45 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-671-72715-4

This unconventional, imaginative and funny first novel by the author of the short story collection Remind Me to Murder You Later makes the most of its bizarre but real-life setting: the coal-mining town of Centralia, Pa., where an underground mine fire has raged since the early '60s--a town plagued to this day by sulfurous fumes and smoke rising eerily from the ground. Nature is out of control in Centralia, and so are most of Boylan's characters; they seem to have walked out of Kurt Vonnegut stories, updated for the '90s. This is one of those novels where no coincidence is too extreme, where characters from one chapter drop in out of the blue (literally) in the next, and where time has a wonderful elasticity that brings random events together in a sort of cosmic interrelatedness that suggests the movement of the planets (in an author's note, Boylan says he was inspired by Gustav Holst's orchestral work of the same name). At the end, the plot, always humorous, veers toward the slapstick. But the characters are sensitively drawn, and on his tour of the universe Boylan offers some perceptive observations about how difficult it is for people to take control of their own lives, and about the lack of communication between the sexes. Author tour. (Apr.)