CHINKS IN THE ARMOR
- A REVIEW OF QUIN'S SHANGHAI CIRCUS BY J.S
yellow and smooth and dangerous?" yips the clever infant,
zapping his father with another riddle. "Quin's Shanghai
Circus," answers the weary book reviewer. "Stop
being silly," the child admonishes. "What's yellow
and smooth and dangerous?" "Ah, dangerous,"
says his distracted parent, "I thought you said meaningless."
Yes, indeed. But if the reader resigns himself to the remarkable
fact that this elephantine farce will move through five decades
of Asian para-history without at any point touching ground
or making the slightest sense, there is a lot of dizzy fun
in the book. Edward Whittemore is more an engaging long-distance
liar than a novelist, and his scheme for persuading literature
to lurch forward is simply to introduce another freakish impossibility
whenever reason's vague outline is sighted through the fog.
The story's people, all outlandish, pop from the author's
head fully jig-sawed. There is old Geraty, a buffalo-like
giant addicted to Japanese horseradish, who once ran a Chinese
pornographic movie parlor. There is the former Baron Kikuchi,
a Japanese who converted to Judaism and became a rabbi. Quin
appears as a shadowy cuckold who ran a circus in Shanghai
at the war's outset and orchestrated the murder of its entire
company during a performance. Maeve Quin, his glad-glanded
wife, is an aerialist who made her final somersault into the
lights with no hands to catch her.
Some of it works and some of it does not. "To what end?"
is a question that is three-quarters silly when queried about
a knockabout entertainment, which uses the rape of Nanking
as a casual scene shifter. The only answer is, "To the
end of the book!" Still, the author does have a point
of view: the human race is obsessively and sometimes grandly
daft. Whittemore is a first novelist, age 41, an ex-Marine
who learned Japanese as a Foreign Service officer in the Far
East. He also served Mayor Lindsay in New York's antidrug
addiction agency. What he caricatures with much admiration
is the stupefying energy with which men pursue their baffling
Monday, Jun. 24, 1974 By J.S.