FUEL-INJECTED DREAMS. By Jamer Robart Baker. Dutton. 323 pp. $15.95; New American Library. Plume Paperback, $5.95.
Something is rotten in Santa Monica, where the mad '60s song-writer Dennis Contrelle is plotting a comeback. For 15 years, since Contrelle-managed groups like the Stingrays and the Beehives last topped the charts, the so-called Wagner of Rock has been creatively blocked and sexually twisted. He keeps his beautiful wife, former Beehive Sharlene, locked up in his kitsch-filled mansion, a place so garishly decorated that "next to it Graceland looked like a Zen teahouse."
Not only is Sharlene still endowed with a great rock 'n' roll voice, she retains the looks that middle-class suburban boys so prized in the '60s: "Here was a girl you could be proud to be ashamed of, a tough little dolled-up working-class slut . . ." The Contrelles' hellish existence intrudes upon all-night deejay Scott Cochran's relatively mundane one after he plays some Beehive oldies while Contrelle himself is listening to the show. Flattered to be invited to the Wagnerian estate, he becomes infatuated with Sharlene, whose resemblance to his old girlfriend, Cheryl Rampton, is even more striking than he remembered. Dennis alternately tries to kill Scott and enlist him in promoting a new song, the gibbering distillation of his many years 'round the bend.
James Robert Baker, whose first novel this is, writes lively and frequently witty prose. Unfortunately, his plot is so riddled with grotesque implausibilities that, long before the Contrelle mansion topples like a seaside House of Usher, the reader's patience will have fled sobbing into the surf-soaked night. JACK RIVERS AND ME. By Paul John Radley. Ticknor & Fields. 193 pp. $14.95; Paperback, $7.95.
The plot of this prize-winning Australian novel flashes back and forward from the day in 1952 when Peanut Delarue jettisons his imaginary friend, Jack Rivers. It is also Peanut's first day at school, and his family, though sharing his affection for the imaginary one, persuade him that maintaining the relationship would only subject the boy to ridicule from his classmates. Seeing their point, Peanut sends Jack off to the islands.
While this family drama unfolds, the Delarues' outback town of Boomeroo prepares for a wedding, and a bawdy occasion it is. The night-before shindig culminates in the prospective groom's being stripped and shackled in a public place so that anyone interested can assess his qualifications. A more therapeutic community ritual centers on the Death Seat, a bench carved from a gigantic, fallen gum tree, where troubled souls come to "answer their own misgivings, salve a defeat, rationalize a victory, take sanctuary from the hocussing of love."
Jack Rivers and Me, the first book of a trilogy, takes some getting-used-to. Author Radley (he was born in 1962) writes fidgety English and indulges in frequent asides and shifts in point-of-view. Sometimes his quirks yield mere cuteness, but at his best he produces images to ponder, as when Jack is said to have "the morality and internal strength of a chaste robot." Are there defiled robots? In lewd Boomeroo, the answer is probably Yes. THE HIGH CASTLE: A 1920s Adventure Novel. By Raymond Steiber. St. Martin's. 218 pp. $14.95.
Remember Jake Barnes, the antihero of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises? Turns out, according to novelist Raymond Steiber, that he really existed -- as a friend of Hemingway, who appropriated his name for fictional purposes, and as performer of the exploits recounted in The High Castle.
The book has its moments. There is a blind baron, busy engineering the fall of the Weimar Republic, who has painstakingly trained himself as a marksman responsive to sound. There is a vicious attempt to blame the coup on Zionists by linking it to kindly Albert Einstein. There is an occasional good line, as when Jake discovers that "his nose was stopped with blood and he had a lot of interesting scrapes and bruises," which seems just the right tone to use about an insouciant Lost Generation protagonist.
What The High Castle lacks is depth of field. It's all foreground, like an action-heavy comic strip, and Jake Barnes and his obligatory girlfriend, Penny Lane (Lois' cousin?), seem to have stepped out of an inkwell. I'd pass up this pastiche and go back to The Sun Also Rises itself. As for Steiber's character-borrowing ploy, a remark from that same novel might apply to anyone pilfering from Hemingway: "You can't blame him such a hell of a lot." THE GOLD TIP PFITZER. By Irene Handl. Knopf. 170 pp. $13.95.
Late in life the English actress Irene Handle (she played the grieving widow at the end of the film The Wrong Box) wrote two novels, The Sioux and its sequel, The Gold Tip Pfitzer. Last year Knopf reissued the first to no small critical acclaim, and now we have the second.
Both books center on the French clan Benoir, a rich and uncommonly handsome lot who are united in nothing so much as their devotion to Georges, the 9-year-old son of Mimi ne'e Benoir and stepson of Vincent Castleton, the Englishman who is Mimi's current -- though perhaps not final -- husband. A boy of great beauty and charm, Georges (also known by Puss, Moumou, the Dauphin, and a number of additional sobriquets) is afflicted with leukemia, much to the depression of everyone.
The Sioux left Georges in decline and Vincent uncertain whether his rescinded desertion of the tyrannical Mimi was a sound second thought. Selfish as she may be, he feared he was hooked on "the ruddy habit-forming Sioux" -- the Benoirs' name for their ferocious selves.
In The Gold Tip Pfitzer Georges dies, and Castleton, who adored the boy, realizes that his strongest motive for adhering to the Sioux is gone. Like its predecessor, this gracefully ornate novel features Handl's idiosyncratic prose, here put to scannable use in her description of Georges' last breath, "the mere sigh of a cry that faints as it flies and is lost in a hole in the air." But the story of Vincent's disentanglement from the tribe lacks the drama of the first volume, and the reader is left wondering, So he's finally ditched the ruddy no-good Sioux, now what? BLOOD SOLSTICE. By James Howard Kunstler. Doubleday. 226 pp. $15.95.
For its first two-thirds, Blood Solstice is a mundane thriller with Made for TV Movie stamped all over it. Grover Graff, an investigative reporter for a third-rate upstate New York paper looks into the doings of a religious cult called The Children of Abraham. To intimidate him they snatch his cat and mail him its severed head in a box.
Graff flies to California, where the cult maintains a branch, and interviews one of its defectors, a skittish young man who wants to talk but whom it will take another session to loosen up. Before that session can materialize, naturally the young man is found murdered. Back East Graff has a run-in with his editor over the story; when the editor trasfers him to the local crime beat, Graff resigns.
So far humdrum. Then the novel catches fire. Author James Howard Kunstler pulls a tangential narrative thread -- the identification of a dismembered body found in several local dumps as that of Graff's college roommate and best friend -- to the center of his web. The story turns in unexpected directions, including a nice disruption in the pattern of parents trying to rescue their children from predatory cults. It becomes clear that Kunstler's forte is describing action -- car chases, hostage-taking, and the indignities of being bound and gagged. By the time all the indictments have been handed down and the corpses interred, the boilerplate beginning of Blood Solstice has been stylishly redeemed. Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.