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Thinking About Magritte.

Cities thrill me, not least of all Limestone, the fine city in Kate Sterns's first novel, Thinking about Magritte. Here all the official buildings - mental hospital, prisons, university - look identical, and it is not unusual to see "absent-minded prison wardens and university professors wander[ing] into the wrong institution." A family of acrobats, certainly the psychic progenitors of all that goes on here, are neverendingly hopping from battlement to spire, and the city is managebly sized, so that the human yet fabulous characters congregate at the doughnutshop, the twenty-four hour restaurant, or the Plaza hotel bar where "a squirel zigzag[s] along the counter, stopping every now and then to guzzle down an unattended glass of whiskey before falling asleep in a bowl of pretzels."

The city council has tried, over the years, to maintain order. But order is often misconceived - an absurdity the citizens put up with or simply ignore. One of the more successful ordinances, however, gave the railroad drew jobs away from lakeside Limestone a century earlier. It is in one such building that the Midnight Cowboy and his mother Lily lived, practicing ballroom dancing with orange plastic footprints on the floor - veering into the bathroom on complex numbers - until she died at twenty-eight, leaving her ten-year-old, crippled son alone. Exactly twenty years later, Cowboy sweats more than everyone else during Maxine, his upstairs neighbor and the wife of a snake-possessed idler who has apparently gone on another binge. "Be my baby, Cowboy.... Find him for me," Maxine coerces the smitten innocent - and Cowboy's off. The endless night is as much an impossible pilgrimage to find his mother as it is to satisfy the living woman he loves.

Bonds between people in this novel are rendered with beauty, grace, and an absence of plebein romance - making way for passionate, otherworldly allegiances. Fastboy, a "blind" pool shark, spends nights with the widow of a tattoo artist who died under mysterious circumstances. "Using his naked body as a blank canvas and her finger as a paintbrush," she describes her tattoos to him in bed. A mental patient/wise man believes he is pregnant, and no one understands but his companion Savage. This runaway's life is similarly shaped by keen concentration on one lasting idea - for him, it is the pigeons he catches and kills barehanded.

"I know nothing about the human mind," says one wistful character, "but I know roads. I've built hundreds and not one of them was completely staraight. It didn't stop anyone from getting to where they wanted to go." Or in Stern's writing, as in Magritte's paintings, the straight line is willfully abandoned for the tumbling and sidestepping of a truer form.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Sheehan, Aurelie Jane
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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