SCAR VEGAS

And Other Stories

By Tom Paine

Harcourt Brace. 215 pp. $22

Reviewed by Ranald Totten

On a recent visit to Bali, I was dismayed to find that the artist enclave called Ubud, at the cultural center of that mystical island, had undergone extensive development. Once a respite from the crowded beach towns along the coast, Ubud now features traffic congestion and urban sprawl, a consequence of unbridled greed that author Tom Paine would not endorse. In Scar Vegas and Other Stories, Paine takes swipes at a world increasingly motivated by money, and is particularly incensed by those who ravish the environment for profit.

"The Hotel on Monkey Forest Road," for instance, is set in a Rangoon bar with a flashback to Bali and the construction of luxury villas in Ubud. Successful engineering partners and buddies for two decades, Andrew Rouse and Sherm Strickhauser react to Bali's unique religious mix of Hinduism and animism in vastly different ways. While Strickhauser has no misgivings about despoiling a jungle that is sacred to locals, Rouse is abruptly consumed by a spiritual awakening. He scraps the original plans and persuades the company suits to "raise their palms and try to get an intuitive feel" for "the best vibrational zones" for placement of the villas. The patrons at the Myanmar tavern, expatriate engineers all, howl with laughter as Rouse, in their eyes, goes "local." For them, there is no soul-searching and no puzzling over the parent corporation's decisions, for construction is "progress," and the bottom line rules regardless of locale.

That bottom line takes a chilling turn in "A Predictable Nightmare on the Eve of the Stock Market Breaking 6,000," an unsettling penthouse-to-outhouse tale of a formerly successful businesswoman, Melanie Applebee, who is left homeless and penniless in El Paso, Tex. Forever dreaming of her revoked credit cards, her Valentino suits and her chauffeur-driven past life, Applebee is forced to take dubious employment across the Mexican border. Directed at today's out-of-control culture of consumerism, this is a timely fable for the postmodern world.

Paine, a former Marine who teaches creative writing at Middlebury College, is a literary chameleon who, like a talented and versatile actor, can take on multiple personas and still retain credibility. One of his more evocative stories, "Will You Say Something, Monsieur Eliot?" imagines a wealthy man sailing alone through a Caribbean hurricane. After days spent drifting on a piece of wood left over from his splintered sailboat, he is rescued by a group of Haitian refugees. As the Haitians nurse the white man back to health, they begin to die off and are thrown overboard. When a U.S. chopper finally comes to the rescue, it is not to congratulate the refugees for saving the man's life. The story was originally published at the height of the Haitian crisis; in it Paine underscores the absurdities of America's policies toward our Caribbean neighbors.

The author's flair for satire shines in the laugh-out-loud "Unapproved Minutes of the Carthage, Vermont, Zoning Board of Adjustment," which captures the petty jealousies, hurtful gossip and disappearing charm of small-town America. A 250-foot communications tower becomes a symbol of environmental decay as well as a cancer-causing blight on society. Paine has a certain genius for the opening hook, and this story begins: "Chairman Harry Gomes opened the hearing at 7:40 p.m. in the Carthage Central School cafeteria noting that Zoning Board of Adjustment member Gloria Mack would be late as husband, Homer, was down with postoperative pain from his recent surgery for appendicitis and son Mike's hockey game went into overtime and she was the only one left to do the evening milking. All other members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment excepting Brewster Hutchins informally agreed after discussion to sign a get-well card for Homer." In the equally hilarious "The Spoon Children," Paine conveys his penchant for the lovable loser, in this case a teenage skateboard punk who makes his way across the country for a convention of rebels.

In 10 confident and quirky stories, Paine blends sharp political conscience with a sassy sense of humor, and a versatile voice with a strong sense of place. His focus on individuals striving to make a difference in an increasingly corrosive social and political world is best illustrated by his dedication: "for Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigerian writer and activist hanged for our insatiable oil gluttony, November 20, 1995." These often harrowing tales aren't quite as overtly provocative as that in-your-face proclamation, but they come close.

Ranald Totten, a writer and critic living in Singapore, can be reached at totten @magix.com.sg.