Krazy Kat Comes of Age : KRAZY KAT A Novel in Five Panels by Jay Cantor (Alfred A. Knopf: $16.95; 250 pp.)

A portion of elegance died when George Herriman's Krazy Kat cartoon strip closed down in the mid-1940s. It was elegance of a different sort from what we practice now; it was knowingness wedded to an exuberant innocence. Today, our culture is even more knowing, but the innocence is pretty much gone.

We have Steven Sondheim, not Cole Porter. Twyla Tharp, not Fred Astaire. The BMW, not the Stutz Bearcat. Vanity Fair (industrial chic), not Vanity Fair (artful sprightliness). Bloom County, not Krazy Kat.

Herriman's strip was a seemingly infinite variation on a woozy theme. Krazy, all yearning and malapropisms, is eternally in love with Ignatz Mouse. Ignatz is tiny and desperate, steals bricks to hurl at Krazy (who regards them as love offerings) and gets hauled off to jail by Offissa Pup, the discouraged representative of order in the continually altering and moonstruck landscape of Coconino County.

Jay Cantor, author of a splendid fictional history, "The Death of Che Guevara," has laid his hands upon Krazy Kat and her colleagues and dragged them, suffering and protesting, through the four decades of our postwar life.

His theme, as one might expect, is loss of innocence. His Coconino County cast, plucked from its two-dimensional state of grace and fantasy, is drafted into successive stages of our modern mythomania: The world as technological revolution, as Freudian self-adjustment, as '60s-style radical chic, as sexual revolution and as the media-entertainment cloud that drifts over everything and turns it all into the same weather.

Cantor imagines the innocent conventions of the Krazy Kat world being destroyed by Ignatz, its resident brooder. He is both serpent in this Eden and its fallen Adam. One day, he takes Krazy on an expedition to Alamogordo. She bounces along fecklessly, dreaming of love and the odd brickbat, until she comes to a strange gleaming tower.

It is the gantry holding the first nuclear device, and Prof. J. Robert Oppenheimer is walking around underneath with a clipboard. But to Krazy, it is an image of delight. "What a brand-new desert that's got such good-looking stuff like this in it," she exclaims in one of the book's many literary takeoffs. In this case, of course, the reference is to The Tempest's Miranda and her "Oh brave new world that hath such people in it."

Krazy understands the device that will transform our world to be a super love object. Ignatz has shown her, she fancies, "an amazing new device to deliver a brick to her head."

Then it goes off, and Krazy, dazzled and suffering a small radiation burn, has her spirit broken. From now on, bricks will no longer be bouquets to her; they will hurt. Her blitheness has no place in the new world. She retires from the comic strip and lies around brooding. This strands the other characters, as well; so Ignatz takes it upon himself to bring her up to date, to make a rounded, savvy, 20th-Century personage out of her.

First, masquerading as Dr. Ignatz, he tries psychiatry. For hydrotherapy, he turns a garden hose on her; for electroshock treatment, he has his children push her tail into a wall plug. Finally, he tries psychoanalysis. Nothing works; Krazy has no libido, no id, no ego; she remains the obsolete innocent.

Next, a movie producer arrives to do a Krazy Kat film, equally to no avail. After that, Ignatz and the other strip characters organize a radical terrorist group and kidnap Krazy, in the style of Patty Hearst. Docilely, she joins them and is photographed brandishing a toy gun; but none of this manages to revive her.

Finally, Ignatz tries fantasy. He and Krazy pretend to be human beings on the trendy cutting edges of things. They engage in kinky sex, she writes a dissertation on Jasper Johns, and finally--fantasy being the only road to success in modern pop culture--they land a nightclub spot. There, they ape their old comic-strip roles and sing their old 1930s songs. Gossip columnists rave over them; art critics write long-winded essays about the new innocence.

Being yourself, in other words, has become the supreme rip-off, the most thoroughgoing form of alienation. So goes Cantor's message. He has used ingenuity, an agile wit and a fine ear for style to get us there. The transformations of Krazy, Ignatz and the other characters--Offissa Pup is seen alternately as a kindly theologian and as Ignatz's resented father figure--are accomplished with a real feeling for the spirit of the originals.

The malapropisms of the new Krazy are nicely bizarre. Mouse Say Tongue's Little Red Book is quoted in the terrorist cell, an attack is launched on "keepitallism" and there is a great deal of denouncing of the Bore Show See. Ignatz' efforts at corruption are wonderfully maladroit.

Yet despite its virtues, "Krazy Kat," whose stylistic capers may remind us of Robert Coover, only works intermittently. Each of the "panels"--the nuclear introduction, the psychoanalytic section, the Patty Hearst section--makes its points, but they are very long points.

Cantor has constructed an elaborate intellectual game for an engaging and provocative purpose. As a whole, it can be rather trying. There is fun and profit, but there are also quite a few reminders about the fun we are having and the profit we are receiving. It is a magician's show whose tricks require an excessive amount of stage preparation for the amount of stage magic actually going on.

"I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles," the original Krazy Kat sang; but readers of Cantor's "Krazy Kat" may not be quite up to the same passion.

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