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The picaresque childhood and erotic adolescence, circa 1945-1955, of George Bernini--who narrates this comic, sentimental, vaguely Auntie-Mame-ish story in an oh-so-Continental manner which is occasionally off-putting but mostly engaging. The half-Jewish son of husband-and-wife trapeze artists, George starts life in a swell Manhattan apartment with absent parents and doting black nanny Madelaine. But when the Flying Berninis die together (they both jumped at once, forgetting that one was supposed to be ""catcher""), George and his beloved cat are tearfully separated from Madelaine and dispatched, aboard the Ile de France, to live with cosmopolitan, black-sheep Uncle Fritz. And soon Fritz has completely taken over George's affections; after all, he's a dashing pianist-composer who lives outside of Paris, takes George along to cozy brothels, gets into bar fights (when someone makes a racist remark), installs George as an Eiffel Tower tourguide, and shows him the Colosseum by night (they sleep out) on a shoestring jaunt to Rome. Moreover, this French idyll also includes precocious puberty at eight, with a modest attempt at cunnilingus with the girl next door (who's dozing at the time). But once again George is miserably uprooted: his childless Aunt Suki, who has won legal custody, well-meaningiy installs poor George (now with an odd accent) in a progressive school run by Chicago's Moral Pragmatism movement. And though George tries to fit in, he doesn't. So, when he's 14, he determines to return to Uncle Fritz--making a wily escape on the 20th Century Limited, hiding out with a childhood chum in N.Y. (to whom he nobly passes along some treasured prophylactics), and stowing away on the Queen Mary. Also aboard, by cutesy coincidence: Dottle Kirstein, the classmate whom George has been lusting after from afar. And the requisite loss of virginity ensues in ironic yet breathy detail. But when George finally lands and tracks down Fritz, he finds that his uncle is dying--and the final chapters shift into high tear-jerking gear: gallant Fritz hears a radio performance of his neglected music and marries his devoted mistress . . . while horrified George keeps the deathbed vigil (but only because he ""feared Fritz's reaction"" if he deserted) and is US-bound with Dottie at the fadeout. Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) doesn't always find the right balance between the Dickensian sentiment and the Felix Krull-style, boulevardier ribaldry; archness sets in now and then. But it's a diverting, if uneasy, mix: bouncy with worldly allusions, sometimes agreeably satiric (the progressive school scenes especially), and even--for a moment or two--genuinely touching.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Dial