Picks and Pans Review: Peru

updated 01/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Gordon Lish

The obsessed narrator of this dark novel sees a fragment of something on television, something that may be obscene. He calls the TV station, but all he can find out is that whatever appeared on the screen happened in Peru. That explains the title. The rest of the book is more difficult. When the narrator was 6, he was watching a man wash a Buick while he played with another boy in a sandbox. These boys clearly were carefully cared for, with a nanny. The narrator says that he picked up a toy hoe and killed Steven Adinoff, the playmate, with it and "God didn't lift a finger." The book then touches on a teacher, books, the West African protectorate of Togoland and other far-flung subjects. But the strange story always circles back to the childhood murder, and each time the descriptions of blood and gore grow more ghastly. Is this crime only imagined? What does it mean that the narrator's first name, Gordon, is the same as that of the author? Lish, a noted New York editor and teacher of creative writing at Columbia University, once said that he "is restricted to work that's highly stylized, work where manner matters at least as much as substance does." His prose certainly is carefully styled: breathless, even panicky at times. The narrative seems to be racing with time before chaos takes over. In his earlier novel, Dear Mr. Capote, the narrator was a psychopath who killed women by sticking an icepick in their eyes. Peru is lighter, even funny at times despite its subject, but reading it is very much like picking at a scab. Once you start you have to keep on until the sore place is all bloody. (Dutton, $15.95)

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