Poet, critic, and now second-time novelist Leithauser (Equal Distance, 1984) here aspires to the intellectual playfulness of...

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Poet, critic, and now second-time novelist Leithauser (Equal Distance, 1984) here aspires to the intellectual playfulness of Calvino or Borges, but his ambitions get the better of him: this is a remarkably ordinary novel that shifts gears without warning, and disappoints largely because its sights are set so high. Framed as an imaginary book by Garner Briggs, with an introduction by the equally pompous Robin Orrin, it purports to be an account of a strange event involving Briggs' younger brother, Timothy, a chess whiz in his early 20s who's invited by mega-conglomerate Congam (as in con-game) to compete against their latest computer. Programmed by quintessential nerd Oliver Conant, the humming machine acts out a struggle that gives shape to the entire book. Here is a rather obvious battle of man versus technology, of visionary innocence versus heartless experience, and it doesn't take long for the media to exploit things. Timmy, an earnest and sincere college dropout, proves telegenic with his ""can-do"" philosophy and his evangelical zeal ""to give people hope."" Though the stow begins with Garner's rather pompous musings on the whole affair--an amusing bit of prose in the manner of Nabokov--he soon retreats into a conventional, bland narrative. Garner nevertheless juxtaposes his dapper self (he's a professor of jurisprudence at Harvard) with his brother's slovenly demeanor. Inspired partly by a bizarre TV preacher, an anti-modernist who leads his congregants in masochistic bloodlettings, naive Tim wins two games (after two dispiriting losses) and two draws. At stake is not just an extra $10,000 should he win, but, in Tim's mind, the future of a technological society and man's role within it. Set a decade from now, Leithauser's rather Manichaean fiction indulges in some putatively satirical jibes at the media, Sly Stallone, and food fads. Peopled with an array of types--from Tim's somber, Hungarian trainer to his ditzy, garrulous mother--this anti-futuristic polemic sacrifices its most redeeming feature--Garner's laughably bombastic voice. All the promise of a novel as eccentric as its characters is spent early on--from there, things are depressingly commonplace.

Pub Date: Jan. 20, 1988

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1988