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Juggling the Stars.

We don't like Morris Duckworth from the beginning. How could we, faced as we are with a name reminiscent of Morris Zapp, the academic shyster in David Lodge's satires, and Gerald Duckworth, the relative who sexually molested Virginia Woolf when she was very small and thus taught her that the feeling about certain parts of her body, "how they must not be touched," is instinctive, goes back thousands of years in the race?

And he steals. He has swiped a document case from a representative of Gucci's in the train from Milan and is attempting to extort 6 million lire from the bloke by threatening to expose the contents of the salesman's datebook to his wife. And in the course of his duties as an English language tutor in Verona, he has copped a bronze statue from the home of one of his pupils.

He commits the teacher's worst sin: He despises his pupils. They are stupid; they are rich. They are there for him to sneer at and exploit.

He lies, instinctively, pathologically. He can barely open his mouth without misrepresenting himself, his past, his plans. Indeed, if he merits our sympathy at all, it would seem to be because he has been screwed up by his parents -- a now-deceased, hyper-religious mother who encouraged him to study; and a brutal, socialist father who belted him for saying "bloody" and called him a pansy when he found him bent over his books.

Thus two Morrises: the mother's good boy, "bumsucker" and social climber; and the despised, irretrievably alienated crook, bent on revenge, revenge against the British class system. He tells his father in unsent letters he babbles into his Dictaphone: "The rich deserve everything we can hit them with, and I'm going to start hitting just as soon as I can."

He kidnaps. Pretending to elope with her, he spirits away his slow-witted, virginal, 17-and-a-half-year-old (she can marry -- when she's 18) pupil Massimina and, without her knowing, sends ransom notes to her family in an elaborate scheme -- never quite clear -- to somehow "hit" the rich and ditch the bride-to-be and not get caught.

We are two-thirds through Tim Parks' new "comic" suspense thriller, Juggling The Stars, before we realize that this clever bounder is also ready to kill. An Italian gentlemen, traveling with an Englishwoman not his wife, reads the kidnapping story in a Verona newspaper, and Morris bashes his head in with a flower pot and hers with a telephoto lens. "He hit a second time, on the temples now, and a third, and a fourth and a fifth and again and again. He put all his weight into it, it was exhausting; until suddenly the blood began to stream, dark almost black."

In Parks' 1991 novel, Goodness, the decision to kill -- or if and when to chose life over death -- is the issue on which all the many plot twists of this extraordinary story turn. Young George Crawley lost his missionary father in Burundi when the father refused to renounce his faith; George's mother, sister and he mumbled a formula and were spared. The saintly mother felt guilt the rest of her life. For the rest of her life, George was ever ready to sacrifice pretentions to goodness to "the most naked common sense."

Until Hilary. George grows up, living with his saintly Methodist mother, nasty grandfather, retarded aunt and promiscuous sister, gets rich with a computer firm and marries pretty, vivacious Shirley, who, he discovers later, doesn't seem to have any firm opinions or principles about anything. Then, after five years, to put some glue into their relationship, they have a child. She is prenamed Hilary for the joy she is expected to bring.

Five years later George has decided to kill her. He has thought of it many times -- lovingly feeding her her antibiotics laced with syrup to get it down, stroking her rubbery complexion, looking into her blind eyes, propping up the immobile little body with feet pointed backward, cradling the head, which lolls -- and will forever loll -- on its side. "It's a right mess, this one, I'm afraid. Never seen anything like it," the doctor had said when she was born.

He has done everything reasonable common sense requires. Consultants. Treatments. More consultants, more treatments. He has had a vasectomy so he can, after years of adultery on both their parts, go back to sleeping with his wife. He has even taken his little bundle to a faith healer, who tells him his child is really very healthy but he needs to be healed.

But Parks' young men are not the types who see themselves as needing to be healed. They are schemers, calculators -- though seldom prepared when events don't unroll according to their plans. George determines to state an elaborate 10th wedding anniversary party, invite families and half-forgotten friends, and then at midnight burn their beautiful house to the ground. The guests will, of course, flee out the front door; but, alas, the flames will envelop little Hilary before she can be saved. If there is an inquest, George anticipates his defense: "Show me, I'll say to the jury, just one, just one part of my overall vision which is out of line with the dominant social philosophy in England today. I bet you can't. I just bet."

So in Juggling the Stars, when an increasingly trapped Morris Duckworth looks at the distraught Massimina -- who is beginning to catch on that maybe her handsome tutor hasn't been mailing those letters she's sent home to mother and maybe doesn't plan to marry her after all -- and then looks at the heavy paperweight he has picked up from the table, we have a clue as to what will follow.

A clue, but we do not know. Parks, quite a schemer himself, holds back some surprises. Meanwhile, with a poet's prose, a satirist's wit, a moralist's nose for corruption and a mother's compassion for the weakest among us, he lays open the human heart, exposes the moral pregnancy of every one of life's moments and dazzles us with his art.
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Author:Schroth, Raymond A.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 28, 1993
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