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DESIRE by Hugo Claus

DESIRE

by Hugo Claus

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-670-86746-2
Publisher: Viking

 This cross-continental tale of Belgian gamblers seeking their fortunes in Las Vegas is the latest (1994) novel from the internationally acclaimed Flemish author of The Sorrow of Belgium (1990) and The Swordfish (p. 239). It's a fragmented story that begins in a bar called ``The Unicorn,'' whose regulars include Claus's unnamed narrator and a group of cronies burdened with colorful monikers (Felix the Cat, Rev'em-up Red, and so forth) who seem to have been transplanted to Europe from Cannery Row. Two of them, dark, brooding (half- Portuguese) Michel and enormously overweight Jake, impulsively light out for America, first to Los Angeles, then eastward to Vegas and the gaming tables. As the keen, ferretlike Michel and ``the sluggish, sleeping giant'' who accompanies him make their way through the various temptations offered by their newfound land, Claus builds a hilarious picture of southwestern American neon splendor (several abrasive hookers make vivid cameo appearances, and a Christian fundamentalist rancher takes Jake and Michel to a revival meeting that features an aging, foulmouthed Jerry Lee Lewis). These sequences are variously reminiscent of the inspired demolitions of trash-culture Americana accomplished decades ago by Evelyn Waugh and Nabokov, as well as Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust. But there's more to the novel: sporadic returns back to Belgium, where the Unicorn's denizens comment on their missing buddies and Jake's abandoned wife struggles to tend their brain-damaged daughter; and occasional appearances by the ghost of Rickabone, their late wastrel companion, who seems to represent his survivors' darker side. Arresting conceptions and vigorous writing abound, but- -except for an inchoate pattern of ironical allusions to the biblical Jacob (who, unlike his namesake, amassed great wealth and experienced a vision of eternity)--none of this adds up to a coherent novel. The Sorrow of Belgium was almost a masterpiece. Desire is a curiosity that reads like Hugo Claus's American Notes, not yet reshaped into fiction.