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by Tom De Haven

Pub Date: June 24th, 1996
ISBN: 0-8050-4445-0
Publisher: Henry Holt

 A good-natured romp through the New York newspaper world of the 1930s, by the whimsical author of such unconventional comic fiction as Freaks' Amour (1979)--and a previous novel about the joys and sorrows of the cartoonist's life, Funny Papers (1985). De Haven's narrator, Al Bready, looks backward from the vantage point of cranky old age to the palmy if conflicted days when ``strip'' cartoonists were media kings and when Al, a self- taught hustler steeped in the works of Jack London and Booth Tarkington, wrote scripts for irascible Walter Geebus's popular Derby Dugan strip, which portrayed the adventures of a resourceful street kid and his faithful talking dog. Everybody loved Derby-- even John Dillinger wrote Walter a fan letter from prison. But, as Al recalls it here, those were dangerous days as well: When his boss's inexplicable illness raises fears of a plot by a rival, Al is drawn into the unsettling lives of such broadly drawn individuals as lunchroom owner Jimmie Rodgers, who says everything twice, Jimmie's beauteous (and perhaps faithful) wife Jewel, an enigmatic man-about-town known only as Mysterious Jones, and several other Damon Runyonesque personalities. Walter Geebus is a wonderful creation, an inspired amalgam of curmudgeon, tyrant, bigot, and hypochondriac--and how can you not like a disheveled romantic who confesses, ``I fall in love at the drop of my pants''? Yet despite its stab at a melodramatic plot, the story moves slowly, and is further deadened by Al's shuttling back and forth between his battles with Geebus and his (unsuccessfully repressed) memories of a blighted childhood. Despite its raucous particulars, a lot of clever name-dropping, and some enchanting illustrations (that seem to blend the styles of Little Orphan Annie and The Katzenjammer Kids) by Art Spiegelman, the novel is both static and redundant. A real disappointment. Not nearly as much fun as it promised to be, and should have been. (First printing of 25,000; $30,000 ad/promo; author tour)