Western puritanism and Eastern fatalism propel this odd, picaresque tale of a small-time academic whose theft of a Tibetan burial marker sends his life spinning out of control—in a first US appearance for Canadian novelist Mitchell. Bob Harlow once considered himself a lucky guy, back when Yvonne, his future wife, plucked him out of a drunken post-divorce haze and patiently prodded him toward a life of self-respect, academic tenure, and Sunday barbecues in a Bismarck, North Dakota, suburb. Having snagged a sabbatical in China with his wife and young daughter, Bob has no reason to suspect his luck will change- -until the Harlows, on a visit to Tibet's arid, spookily spiritual Place of the Dead, snitch a couple of mani stones, or funeral markers, to take home as souvenirs. Bob feels guilty right away, and it may be his guilt that leads him to believe—as Yvonne badly cuts her arm while bicycling a short time later; a suitcase is lost on the family's return to the States; and the front wheels fall off their truck—that the thefts brought a curse on their heads. When Bob's son by his first marriage dies in a motorcycle accident, Bob vows to return the stones before the rest of his world is destroyed. This time he takes along, improbably, his vulgar, hard- drinking car mechanic, who whines, leers, drinks, and jokes incessantly in a credible Sancho Panza imitation while Bob undergoes his own earnest, Quixote-esque soul-searching tour of the Orient. Doggedly plowing through endless bureaucratic muddles, Third World transportation failures, political rebellions and magical demons that are thrown in their path, Bob and Vern finally reach their destination, where Bob returns the stones and achieves the spiritual rejuvenation he sought. But whether the curse ever truly existed remains a matter of Eastern—or Western—belief. Mitchell's humor misses as often as it hits in this piquant- -but inconsistently appealing—parable of sin and absolution.
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