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Book Review : Bungled Kidnaping Takes Us Back Home to Indiana

Times Book Critic

Binding Spell by Elizabeth Arthur (Doubleday: $17.95; 368 pages) Pygmalion, gifted sculptor, created a statue so endearing that he fell in love with it and it came to life. Elizabeth Arthur, an undoubtedly gifted writer, creates a number of endearing characters. She falls in love with them and they turn to statues.

“Binding Spell” is a whimsical tale set in a small town in Indiana. Its central event is the harebrained, entirely unworkable attempt of a tenderhearted and militantly right-wing farmer to kidnap two visiting Russian scholars and hold them for political ransom.

Its real subject, though, is the comical eccentricity of its entire cast of characters, among whom are found four dogs, each with a point of view.

Stays to Enjoy Them

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Possibly, they are tiny people in dog suits. Or possibly, the others are large dogs in people suits.

Arthur’s whimsy has some real virtues. Her characters have the quirky and unexpected individuality of pet animals. They also have a pet animal’s inability to develop beyond its initial individuality, or to get out of its master’s reach.

Having devised them, promisingly, Arthur stays on to enjoy them. Our own enjoyment fluctuates.

“Spell” is a book of enticing beginnings. There are, for example, the Guthrie brothers, two of the book’s main characters. They are Shade and Light.

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Ryland, the older, is painstaking and pessimistic. He runs his furniture store in Felicity, Ind., with gloomy skill. A lifelong sense of unfairness has wilted him.

His mother, “Utopian and also somewhat chickenhearted,” treated him and his brother with rigorous equality; same-sized meal portions, same Christmas presents, same bed time. But since Ryland was four years older, “The effect of all this equal treatment was to make him feel he was one of life’s losers.”

Easy Life for Brother

Peale, on the other hand, is a child of sunshine. Everything comes easily to him; everyone likes him. So much so, in fact, that they elect him sheriff. Which, of course, forces him to deal with the rough and unfair aspects of life that he has always managed to avoid.

The contrasting fraternal spirits are provocatively set out. By the end of the book, though, Ryland’s pessimism will be leavened by gaiety, and Peale’s cherubic outlook will be humanized by a dose of grittiness.

The transformations, with all their disheartening symmetry, are less a matter of development than of authorial rearranging.

Arthur does her rearranging through two women who are more cliche than character, and more cute than alluring. Maggie, skeptical and independent, finds a very soft-edged happiness with Ryland. He ends up reciting Edward Lear’s “Jumblies” to her tummy, which contains their future baby.

Too Many Happy Endings

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Bailey, a hippie-turned-white-witch--her witchcraft is as domestic as home cannery--inflames Peale out of the zombie-like contentment with a flaccid wife to adulterous passion. The passion is legitimized when the wife amiably walks out.

Arthur’s witty beginnings are undermined by the happy endings that fizz up, it seems, every few pages.

A happy ending will eventually engulf the book’s most interesting character, but he gets a run for our money beforehand.

Howell is Bailey’s brother, and deep down, he is as much of a flower child as she is. But he is the man of the family and a farmer, and this is Indiana.

He has become a religious fundamentalist--out of the conviction that the world will fly apart unless there is some satisfactory central control--and a right-wing Libertarian.

Kidnaps Russian Visitors

With the help of two wild-eyed buddies, he kidnaps two Russians who are visiting the local college. His plan is to hold them hostage until the local banks tear up their outstanding farm mortgages.

After a series of flat-footed mistakes, the kidnapers and victims all end up drinking sweet sherry with a Hungarian grande dame who happens to be Maggie’s mother.

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The hilarity of the bungled kidnaping is as strenuous and dutiful as television slapstick. On the other hand, the conflict between Howell’s innate sweetness and his paranoid obsession with orderliness display Arthur’s talent at its best.

He has a remarkable skill at farming, and particularly with his farm animals.

Gems of Writing

“They didn’t know what they wanted,” Arthur writes, “so Howell helped them find out.” Such particulars are golden; here is Arthur on a stubborn dog-protagonist: “He had few ideas, after all, and every one of them was precious.”

It is in such small turns and shining phrases that Arthur finds her voice. Her larger, set-piece bits of wackiness, on the other hand, tend to submerge it.

The voice is further submerged by the pages of internal monologue that the author assigns to each character. They are bulky and lethargic. The characters are uncolored by their reflections; the reflections are uncolored by character.


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