On Top of Old Smoky : THE PLANETS, <i> By James Finney Boylan (Poseidon Press: $18.95; 264 pp.)</i>
Extraordinary events are happening with alarming frequency in the Pennsylvania town of Centralia, prime location of James Finney Boylan’s wildly amusing first novel.
A child’s daydream of receiving a birthday pony is interrupted when a rabbit wrapped in an Angora sweater is hurled through her bedroom window. A near-naked mime’s unorthodox performance in front of a hogtied audience of one is unexpectedly capped by a first-time parachutist’s scene-stealing entrance. The town’s supplies of hand tools and household appliances are being depleted by a burglar known as the Outsider, who makes his getaways on a hardware-laden burro. A hairy cellar-dwelling caretaker constructs a personal philosophy involving the existential differences among several brands of chewing gum.
What is it about Centralia that engenders such odd occurences and strange behavior? Is it the carbon monoxide that’s a constant presence in the air, residual pollutant of an underground-mine fire that’s been burning beneath the city’s ground for 22 years?
An eerie sight indeed is Centralia, with columns of smoke rising perpetually from holes in the earth. It’s a virtual ghost town, a place of boarded-up dwellings and abandoned public buildings. All but a handful of houses have been bought by the Department of the Interior. Its few visitors are greeted by a sick-humor sign that reads, “CENTRALIA: MINE FIRE IS OUR FUTURE.”
The few citizens who remain in or are drawn to Centralia have a goofy, whacked-out manner that matches their surrealistic surroundings.
There’s Officer Calcagno, the policeman who can’t seem to get through a day’s duties without being sucked into someone else’s fantasy life; Dent Wilkins, amateur ventriloquist and would-be adulterer who assumes the squeaky voice of his dummy, Corky Chorkles, during moments of crisis; Demmie Harrison, frustrated teen-ager, hoping to transform herself into a heavy-metal rock star by applying a thick beard of Gillette Foamy; Judith Lenahan, “vulnerable and hostile,” the temp secretary and at-home nudist who shaves her head to avoid becoming a fashion statement: “There was this whole secret code, especially for women, about who you were and what you were saying about yourself. . . . She wasn’t going to spend her life providing secret signals for strangers to misconstrue.”
And, in a cameo appearance, there is Judith’s Uncle Flip, “the man who had been thrown out of the U.S. Marine Corps Marching Band for poisoning the edelweiss in Switzerland.”
These and several other eccentric characters are drawn into and out of each other’s orbits in the course of “The Planets.” Boylan (author of “Remind Me to Murder You Later,” a well-received short-story collection) directs their zany progress with a conjurer’s manic zest, effectively combining hilarious absurdity with moments of unexpected poignancy.
Pulled here and there by forces they cannot comprehend, the figures in Boylan’s fictional universe enact a sort of small-town “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” all loosely patterned on the Holst symphonic work that shares its title with this book. Partners join and separate without being able to connect. Vicki loves Dwayne but is drawn to Wedley. Dwayne is in love with the memory of Edith, whom he betrayed. Wedley is attracted to Vicki but remains true to Emily, who left him.
The quest for a satisfying relationship leads this enterprising crew to hitherto unexplored corners of their romantic world. “Sleeping with one’s high school sweetheart at age twenty-five,” for instance, “was the strangest thing Vicki had ever experienced. It added a whole new verisimilitude to the concept of time travel.”
With almost all present being of two minds about things, quarrels are inevitable, such as the one where “the gist of the fight was that neither of them wanted to get married, but each felt that the other one, by this time, ought to.”
Beneath the interplanetary trappings and the cosmic giggles, Boylan’s strangely endearing folk are grappling with basic universal matters: identity and integrity, the search for love and the need to be accepted, freedom versus commitment. How to reconcile these often conflicting impulses? As the not-always-inarticulate Dwayne reflects, “There had to be a way of being himself without living a contradiction.”
Dwayne is a curious fellow, a man whose brain works on so many simultaneous tracks that he rarely is able to finish a simple sentence. But if Dwayne is initially perceived as ludicrous, he later becomes as sympathetic as the rest of “The Planets’ ” quirky occupants, once the reader learns more about what’s truly going on behind his dull facade. Boylan is good to his characters that way. His amusement is grounded in affection.
Dwayne--along with Vicki, Dent, Judith and the others--fails to line up all his personal planets in a row in the breakthrough he yearns for. His ascent from everyday cares is thwarted; in the end, he remains inevitably Earthbound, like the rest. Meanwhile, these ordinary types have made some uncommonly entertaining alignments in their journeys through the interpersonal galaxies.
Finally, it seems, this planet is as strange as any in the known universe. Residents need look no further for alien communications.