"What'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 manias.

Monday, Jun. 24, 1974 By J.S.


©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016