BOOK REVIEW : In the Mind of a Man Who Can’t Sit Still : DIAMOND’S COMPASS <i> by P.H. Liotta</i> . Algonquin Books; $18.95, 269 pages


One of the literally never-ending pleasures of book reviewing is that you get occasional glimpses into minds that are one in a million. Never mind the story, the characterization, the style or the lack of it in some books; the treat resides somewhere inside the author’s skull.

It might be easy to dismiss P. H. Liotta as one weird dude or to write him off him in another way by sticking him into a literary tradition: You could say his hero, Dante Diamond, is a clear descendant of any Hemingway hero or a mythic stepson of Norman Mailer’s fancifully named protagonist, Sergius O’Shaugnessey.

Or you could further say that “Diamond’s Compass” is a “coming of age” novel, or you could compare Liotta to Paul Watkins or even John McPhee--men who aren’t content to just write books but who must fly airplanes or go out on fishing boats or journey to the Alaskan interior or even look seriously for a long time at rocks.


But the most efficient and rewarding way of reading “Diamond’s Compass” is to turn the pages and ignore the plot (which is pretty pedestrian when you look at it up close: A guy loves/can’t love his remote and forbidding father. Also, a guy betrays his symbolically named wife Faith and hops into the sack with the symbolically named beauty, Troy.

Look past the book and try to comprehend the author. Liotta was raised in Australia. He was a military pilot. His other book of prose is on falconry. The first draft of this book came into being as a poem, about 10 years ago, entitled “Tellurion” and ran 1,728 lines.

“Diamond’s Compass” is set mostly in Tehran in the late 1970s, during the fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

There are so many Farsi phrases and chunks of untranslated Persian poetry that an extensive glossary is included in the back. Besides Farsi, the glossary contains Spanish, German and other wonderful linguistically generic words like bong (not what you think it is, but, in fact, “pitons with angles greater than 1 1/2 inches, of steel or aluminum, and full of holes to reduce weight”), and cack , “the harsh, staccato banter of a falcon used as a warning or fear response.” Liotta has got a mind, and he likes to play.

Here’s another aspect of Liotta’s mind: He’s just not happy unless he’s got a character dying, nearly drowning, shooting himself, bleeding from his ears or vomiting, fainting or having his rubber flying mask melt right onto his face during a horrible plane crash.

So, as Dante Diamond undergoes underwater demolition training and thinks about dropping out of the academy because his roommate has shot himself and gotten blood all over the tile floor, his remote, aloof, war-hero dad, who lives in Tehran and works for the Shah, and mother, who’s had a couple of nervous breakdowns, invite Dante out for the summer.


Because Dante is a mountaineer along with all of his other accomplishments, he decides to climb Mount Damavand, one very big mountain. His guide may or may not be a Savak agent, but it really doesn’t matter because Dante must climb the mountain, face death, become a man, decide what he wants to do in his physical life and who he is in his spiritual life before he can come back down.

It seems fair to say that people like Liotta perceive action as a form of thought (or even prayer) and consider further that without action, there is no thought (or prayer). Looking into a word processor doesn’t count as action. You’ve got to be falling or climbing or hurting or festering or bleeding--preferably all at once. But why not? Why not learn Farsi, hunt with falcons, crack your ribs, fly high in the sky, endanger your life and limbs? It keeps away the blues, and it makes for unique--if not artistically pure--literature.