As a novelist, Martin telegraphs no punches: Tethered didn't give much thematic warning of the compellingly different The Crying Heart Tattoo--which in turn hardly prepares one for this odd, largely disappointing departure: a picaresque/burlesque, a prancing satire with a lot of energy but, alas, nowhere to go beyond its own playground. Colleen Timmerand, 23, is an orphan who surrounds herself with loving sugar daddies--patrons who are allowed to chuck, cuddle, and tuck her in. . . but who must leave her virginity intact. Most patient of these benefactors is a Washington mail-order executive and ex-officer called The Colonel, a nice man who takes Colleen on vacation with him to Harpers Ferry National Park. But, while the Colonel merely wants a week of rest, scenery, and history, the irrepressible, pixillated Colleen promptly falls in with a pair of old hucksters: Shubie Morgan and black, mute, gnome-like Mr. Relle--with whom Colleen communicates in an ongoing game of Charades. (Martin pounds this cute idea to a repetitious pulp.) Shubie and Mr. Relle, as entranced with Colleen as most others are, involve her in doing an exhibition of levitation--something Colleen believes she does quite naturally; this levitation exhibition attracts hordes of ""nuts"" who are already in the park to take part in various political and apocalyptic demonstrations--the largest being rival marches between pro- and anti-abortionists. So the book-length result is one paroxysm of violent American eccentricity after another--in the Day of the Locust tradition. True, these sections, though gaudy and excessive, have a jaundiced, even poetic power. In other sections, moreover, the novel is reminiscent of an earthier Wapshot Scandal: Martin, like Cheever, has a talent for startling changes from light to dark. (""Night is so very deep, then, that you think day will never come and you therefore will never have to look upon what you've done, so you do it and do it and do it during that hour, one, when a heart is hardened against appeals to all that is holy, and 'Daddy, no! Daddy, no!' means nothing at all."") Yet the relentless, self-consciously cartoony quality of Martin's tragicomedy here more often, unfortunately, seems like the worst of John Irving: the Cuisinart-ing down of all modern violence and ethical mistake into a lurid and formless sort of pop-up entertainment. And, in the end, this is hard-working, imaginative, but regrettably shallow work--from a gifted writer whose challenging, dark, moral/pessimistic talent only occasionally pokes through the glittery, obvious farce.