SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING

By Amy Tan

Putnam. 474 pp. $26.95

By chance, before reading Saving Fish from Drowning, I picked up The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, edited by Tobias Wolff, and found a story by Amy Tan called "Rules of the Game," which is a perfect exercise of perspective, character and language. This story was often on my mind when I tried to get through her new novel, since I was mystified as to what had happened to the author of such a lovely, precise and entertaining story.

I suppose that Saving Fish from Drowning is supposed to be fun or perhaps satiric. It's about a group of Americans who go on an art tour to Burma, and though the woman who organized the tour has died under mysterious circumstances, this doesn't stop her from (1) going along and (2) telling this story. (Sort of The Canterbury Tales with a ghost as the Host.) This narrator, named Bibi Chen, is a woman of social pretensions, not to mention an expert in Asian art, and she imagines herself to be a dry wit, but mostly when she says catty things about her friends, she sounds dated, ugly and bigoted. The tourists are ultimately kidnapped by some Burmese cultists, who have mistaken a member of the group as their savior.

Tan may have intended Bibi Chen to have an Evelyn Waugh quality, but where Waugh is surprising in his arch observations and in his delight with the impossibly cruel, Bibi is off-putting, particularly in her fascination with the scatological and her infantile attitudes about sex. For instance, Bibi holds forth on how various races and nationalities smell. She dislikes the way a Chinese peasant smells, but, she says, "I am not obsessive about cleanliness, not like the Japanese. . . . Why, even their toilets are equipped to spray your bottom with warm water and then dry it with wafts of air. . . . And while I'm on the topic, I can't say that cleanliness is renowned among the British I have known. . . . Theirs is a spit-and-polish kind of clean, a shiny shoe, a scrubbed face, while parts unseen are left untended. . . . The French are so-so, in my estimation, though I don't have a tremendous amount of experience here . . . but you do have to wonder why they invented so many perfumes."

Saving Fish from Drowning doesn't improve when you consider the minor characters either; they seem to be cliches in search of some signifying detail. For instance, we have Harry Bailley, one of the tour members, who is a middle-aged dog trainer "desperate for love and sex." "The damn trouble was, he had an enlarged prostate, the typical benign prostatic hyperplasia that afflicts many men, more annoying than harmful. But, by God, Harry would moan, it shouldn't strangle a man's best friend before he's even turned fifty!" The image of man's best friend is one that Tan just can't let alone. When Harry is propositioned by a prostitute, she writes, "Though Harry was tempted, he was also a veterinarian who was well aware of the precise opportunistic methods by which parasites and deadly viruses travel. Down, boy. Good boy."

This infantile attitude isn't occasional. For instance, there is "the other attractive single woman in the group, Heidi." She is described as having "big wondering eyes, limber legs, tumbling bunches of blond hair." Harry, however, is convinced that her breasts "could not possibly be real. (In fact, they were.) Harry, an expert in animal structure, had convinced himself he knew better. They pointed and didn't sway; he had noticed that many times. What's more, the nipples sat too high, as if they were doilies floating on balloons."

The sad thing is that, hidden away in these hundreds of pages, is a potentially fascinating story. The cultural misunderstandings between the kidnappers and the hostages and the way in which the media operate in sensational cases are amusing and could have been insightful. But the central element of this book's plot, the kidnapping, doesn't take place until after 230 pages of Bibi's inane observations, and by the time you get there, you're ready to go home. *

Craig Nova's most recent book is "Cruisers."

Amy Tan