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Brunner, hitherto known primarily for superior science-fiction, now offers an extravagant exercise in Americana: a one-on-one steamboat race from New Orleans to St. Louis in June 1870--with nautical details, period exotica, geographical minutiae, and a surfeit of subplots. First come, awfully slowly, 250 pages of background, introducing the boats' histories and the principal crew/passenger characters. On the one hand there's the veteran sidewheeler Atchafalaya, with lonely captain-owner Hosea Drew in command, seconded by his beloved protÉgÉ/pilot Fernand Lamenthe (cheated scion of a banking family). On the other hand there's the brand-new Nonpareil, the dreamboat of old, blind ex-captain Miles Parbury (a Civil War river-warfare casualty), financed by shady Hamish Gordon and by Lamenthe's evil relatives. And soon a race becomes inevitable--thanks to a Gordon/Drew restaurant brawl, the Nonpareil's need to win river-business, public demand. . . and two St. Louis medical emergencies (one of them viral to Drew) that require the speedy arrival of quack ""Electric Doctor"" Cherouen. So off go the steamboats, with a slew of contrived characters-in-conflict aboard: Fernand's quadroon-love Dorcas, ex-housemaid to old lech Parbury; Fernand's possessive mother, one of New Orleans' two top black-magic queens (she'll try casting spells to help Fernand win); Josephine, the other voodoo empress; reporter Joel; black engineer Caesar; a pretentious musician; and many others. Still, none of the stories here--all leading to some personal stake in the race outcome--is full or involving enough to generate much emotional grip. Instead, the novel is moved along, more or less, by the river itself-with each major port passing by, with a predictable assortment of boat-maneuvers and troubles along the way (refueling woes, debris, fog, mud, fire), with a nicely downbeat disaster-finale. And Brunner's eclectic research, served up in lively dialogue and robust prose, makes this a lavish, 592-page treat for devotees of Mississippi-ana--even if others may find it somewhat overfreighted with storyline fragments and those unwieldy first-half flashbacks.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Ballantine