Picks and Pans Review: Traffic and Laughter

updated 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Ted Mooney

Ten years ago, Mooney wrote an extraordinarily good first novel, Easy Travel to Other Planets. It was an oddly romantic and troubling book about a woman marine biologist who became obsessed, mentally and sexually, with a dolphin she was studying. This second novel is just as romantic—here the sex is all interhuman—and much more troubling.

It is an ambitious and complicated book about Los Angeles, movie-making and reality, and the life-changing possibilities of sex and love. It is also about diplomatic intrigue, time travel, the fission bomb, contemporary South African politics and, yes, the apocalypse. This is a handful for any author to take on and, even in the skilled hands of Mooney, it all becomes a bit overwhelming and top heavy by the time the novel wraps up on its 402nd page.

At the heart of the story is Sylvia, a Los Angeles late-night radio deejay, "a lilac-eyed woman in the middle of life's youth." In rapid order, she begins a torrid love affair with a movie special-effects expert (Mooney may write novels for smart people, but he also writes smartly, and steamily, about sex), her house burns down, and she learns that her diplomat father is involved in hush-hush negotiations that will decide the fate of the planet.

Soon to come is Sylvia's friendship with a black South African woman who may be smuggling weapons to antiapartheid guerrillas, seemingly sinister appearances by a man who identifies himself as the ghost of Sylvia's dead uncle, and anxiety-filled trips to Paris and Cape Town.

Though this is all involving—and Traffic and Laughter is unreservedly worthy of recommendation to readers interested in serious fiction—it's often hard to fully understand what is happening to Sylvia, and when. Mooney's is not a straightforward, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other narrative. He has read his James Joyce, to judge from the wordplay, symbolism and multiple layers. The novel becomes richer and more resonant with a second reading, as one catches deeper meanings in phrases and actions missed while concentrating on plot developments the first time around. (Knopf, $19.95)

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