PENELOPE NOW by John Crosby


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Crosby's wry suspense tales have always been highly quirky, but this new novel--a Southern-rural comedy-melodrama inspired by Homer's Odyssey--is downright strange, especially since it reads an awful lot like two little books stuck together with a dab of writer's glue. The first of those books is by far the better one. It's the unlikely but cheerily unpredictable story of what happens to young Virginia farm-wife Jessie Jenkins when her husband Derry suddenly departs for some unknown reason, perhaps never to return--just like Odysseus. Abandoned wife Jessie (a onetime classics scholar who communes with Athena) is hard up for money, overworked, and, like Penelope, resistant to the leering advances of suitors. But when Derry's creditors threaten to foreclose on Jessie's beloved livestock, she turns desperate. . . and resourceful: she gives her body to huge, fat neighbor Harry in return for his shady help in saving the farm. And once Jessie gets a taste of adultery and wheeling-dealing, there's no stopping her: soon she's buying (with government loans) 3000 acres of hillside to develop into a ski-resort, using sex for fun and profit, dabbling in graft, and dueling with a mob-connected conglomerate--a duel which ends with the murder of a sweet, old, Jewish private-eye (he was hired by Jessie to take blackmail pix of her conglomerate nemesis). Farfetched? Quite so. And the mixture of Crosby's effete diction with redneck dialect is sometimes distinctly odd. But the pace is fast, the small-town/rural comic detailing is neat, and the business/sex shenanigans are repeatedly brought down to earth--by surprisingly convincing and affecting scenes of Jessie at her gritty livestock chores (a goat's breech birth, castrating pigs, etc.). The second half here, however, plunges over the edge into off-puttingly weird nonsense--as we learn what Derry/Odysseus has been doing all this time. He's been kidnapped, it seems, by a Three-Faces-of-Eve girl with multiple personalities; after much sex and violence, Derry accidentally kills her; and then he's haunted by her ghost(s). . . and compelled to journey to her hometown, where he saves her father (the incestuous source of her madness) from mobsters. Finally, then, in the last 30 pages, Derry comes home to Jessie, helps her to finish off that feud with the conglomerate (more murders), but then hits the road again. . . while Jessie runs for Congress. Half engaging, half just peculiar--a loose-jointed, improvisatory sort of novel which may appeal to those who've liked Crosby's thrillers because of (rather than in spite of) their flaky idiosyncrasies.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1981
Publisher: Stein & Day