A VAUDEVILLE OF DEVILS

7 Moral Tales

By Robert Girardi

Delacorte. 421 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Kay Douglas

The subtitle and the introductory quote from Isak Dinesen's "The Old Chevalier" in Robert Girardi's latest book, A Vaudeville of Devils, invite comparison to Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales. This bold move fills the reader with greedy anticipation as the first of Girardi's tales, "The Demons Tormenting Untersturmfuehrer Hans Otto Graebner," unfolds. Note, please: These are tales -- they unfold. In the unrushed manner of statelier times, Girardi lets the moral dilemma that each of his protagonists faces take shape, then languorously dwells on the mental perplexities and period of indecision each man experiences, allowing him to twist slowly in the wind a bit before bringing the tale to its conclusion.

Take the SS man in the first tale, sent to Belgium to kill an aging artist whose work "has been deemed counterproductive to the aims of National Socialism." This flawed Nazi, a former art student himself, finds himself responding in a way he had not anticipated to the strange paintings hanging in the artist's studio, especially one which depicts "a vast parade of humanity of every description . . . everyone wearing carnival masks," with "Death, wearing a green top hat and green cravat," observing the festivities from one corner. The SS man is mesmerized by this painting, which is "grotesque and harmonious, foolish and wise, beautiful and ugly -- all at the same time." But which of his personas will get the upper hand -- the former art student, who is drawn to the paintings, or the Untersturmfuehrer, iron disciple of duty? The resolution, worthy of Dinesen, does not disappoint.

The seven tales have a common moral theme, best expressed in the final tale by a priest who counsels that, "Without God, friend, the world is a vaudeville of devils. An absurd carnival full of people fornicating to no purpose and shooting each other over a joke." It is the "vaudeville" in these tales, redolent of lavishness and decay, that is most captivating, as Girardi revels in exotic locales ranging from Yemen to Vladivostok. But there is more than love of setting and detail here; there is a deep reverence for archetype and antiquity.

An abiding sense of the past echoes throughout the book but is strongest in the second tale, "Three Ravens on a Red Ground," which deftly shuttles between the lives of a present-day corporate warrior in the Pacific Northwest and his distant ancestor who fought during the Crusades. The uncanny similarities between the struggles of the executive and the crusader are symbolized by the heraldic device on the crusader's shield, the three ravens. At the moment when the executive's conscience seems held captive to the demands of career, he looks out a window and sees, perched on a railing and set against the blaze of a red sunset, three crows who "seemed to be staring at him with their hard bird eyes."

The third tale, "The Dinner Party," takes place at the cataclysmic end of an unspecified world at an unspecified time. The ambiguity of the protagonist's situation was, to my mind, more confusing than surreal, though images from Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" helped give me some frame of reference. Indeed, Girardi is a master at enlisting his reader's stock of literary references; surely in the room next door sit Dinesen, Poe, Bocaccio, Borges . . .

In "The Primordial Face," for example, a German singer has lost his voice as well as his sense of identity, which is reminiscent of the opera singer Pellegrini Leoni in Dinesen's "The Dreamers." Like Dinesen, Girardi prefers to present his tales obliquely, with impressions and suggestions, and with a fine disdain for realism. Girardi's tale of three hollow men, the singer among them, and their quixotic search for a giant stone face said to exist on the bottom of the Red Sea shares Dinesen's preoccupation with fate but displays a modern theme of personal responsibility for finding one's own way through the labyrinth.

A more modern sensibility rules the wonderfully entitled "The Defenestration of Aba Sid," in which an inept lawyer is given the thankless task of defending a depraved, inhuman criminal. No one wants or expects him to succeed, yet the lawyer develops a sudden competent eloquence, born of the conviction that his odious client is innocent. The lawyer is the quintessential dreamer, standing in perhaps too stark a contrast to the murderous defendant.

Two other tales, "Arcana Mundi" and "Sunday Evenings at Contessa Pasquali's," round out this collection of moral fables, each posing haunting questions about the illusory nature of self-determination and the fate of all dreamers who would awaken from the dream. Upon closing the book and recalling this diverse assemblage, one wonders what the collective noun for such a group of tales should be. How appropriate, for example, are the phrases "a murder of crows," "a skulk of foxes," and "a dole of doves." And for this collection? Ah, yes . . . "a vaudeville of devils."

Kay Douglas teaches English at Montgomery College.