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BOOK REVIEW : Sin Under the Surface in a City of Saints : SIRENS <i> by Stephen Pett</i> ; Vintage, $8.95, 400 pages

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Utah is not a state that has produced many writers. Outsiders have always had more success at capturing the essence of the place, often by writing less about the dominant Mormon culture than about the quirkiness of the non-religious life that coexists with it.

Wallace Stegner, for instance, who spent part of his childhood in Utah as a nonbeliever living among the Saints, set his elegiac novel, “Recapitulation,” in Salt Lake City, where his protagonist, a diplomat named Bruce Mason, returns to confront his own painful youth as an outsider. Norman Mailer constructed a brilliant picture of the seamy, moneyless, violent side of small-town Utah in “The Executioner’s Song,” the marginally fictionalized story of convicted killer Gary Gilmore.

In many ways Stephen Pett’s raucously exuberant first novel, “Sirens,” which is set in Salt Lake City, reads like an amalgam of themes found in both books. Like Stegner’s protagonist, the narrator of “Sirens,” Carlos Cade, is raised in Salt Lake City as a non-Mormon and returns to Utah in order to confront his past.

In spirit, however, Carlos Cade has much more in common with Gary Gilmore. He has both Gilmore’s bravado (“Let’s do it,” was Gilmore’s oft-quoted and now-famous taunt to his executioners) as well as his history of petty crime and juvenile incarceration.

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Raised in a welfare family, Carlos Cade begins robbing service stations before he is old enough to drive. Even as a child, he sees stealing as “sort of an obligation"--a supplement to household income. Pett draws a touching portrait of a family beaten down by poverty, surrounded--and in a sense painfully isolated--by a community of wholesome, prosperous Saints.

Carlos’ ailing mother is housebound, his father jobless and surly. So unimaginative and financially strapped is this family that for his high school graduation present Carlos receives a carton of cigarettes. His sister Hilda is a sympathetic ally (“We swam in the same fishbowl, if you know what I mean”) until Carlos discovers her in bed with his father. “Hilda never made sense to me again.” Driven away by shame, his father disappears, leaving the family even more destitute. Hilda seems to bury her pain by preening for beauty contests, while Carlos becomes ever more angry and disturbed.

All this is background for the real theme of the story--redemption and revenge. While engaged in an innocent childhood game with friends, Carlos participates in a murderous act of cruelty, which results in a boy’s death. Carlos must bear partial responsibility, although it is another boy, Lance Arthur, the son of a wealthy businessman, who is the real culprit. The boys are able to convince authorities the death was an accident, but the incident deeply scars Carlos, who says he discovered two things: “Anybody could die. Nobody could be trusted.” What a perfect mind-set for a petty criminal.

Lance Arthur becomes Carlos’ archenemy, a rivalry which only intensifies when they fall in love with each other’s sisters. The cold and morally corrupt Lance goes on to marry Hilda and become governor of Utah, while Carlos drifts from job to job until he returns to Salt Lake City determined to tell the truth about the boy’s death and Lance’s involvement. The scene is set for some fairly intense drama.

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Drama, in fact, is what this novel has in spades. Within hours of his return, Carlos is caught up in a feud between two men who are engaged in illegal dogfighting; one after another people begin turning up dead. A nightclub is bombed and the police question Carlos. At this point, the novel takes on the quality of hard-boiled detective fiction, complete with tough-guy lines such as, “The sun was like a woman on my back,” and “I flipped my cigarette at the moon.” Carlos establishes a relationship with Jenny, a sympathetic woman he’s met but it seems tinged with melancholy detachment. Can a man so burdened by a life of pain ever hope to have a settled future?

In a sense Salt Lake City seems an unlikely setting for a novel in which characters smoke joints the size of chili peppers and an underworld of petty crime flourishes. But in another way it makes perfect sense. The city has been stereotyped as a bastion of Saints. But scratch the surface and plenty of sinners turn up. “Sirens,” like many classic American novels, portrays an “outlaw” who is really the man of conscience while the respectable community leaders hide their hearts of darkness. The contrasts in this novel only deepen its impact. With “Sirens,” Stephen Pett has made an auspicious debut as a novelist.

Next: Elaine Kendall reviews “Women” by Philippe Sollers (Columbia University Press).


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