CHEROKEE By Jean Echenoz Translated by Mark Polizzotti Godine. 212 pp. $16.95
"Cherokee" is a cool, understated novel about a rather dull young Parisian who unwittingly gets caught up in a tangled quest for buried treasure. Having gone in search of employment in order to maintain his girlfriend, George Chave finds himself not only pursuing another woman instead, but being pursued by the police, by his employer and by his own somewhat disreputable cousin, Fred Shapiro.
The treasure is an old family fortune in a small Alpine village. A hundred years ago, a man killed his stepfather, Marguerite-Elie Ferro, in order to inherit his fortune. The old man, though, had already thought better of it, and his will denied his descendants the fortune until the fifth generation had died out. This now being the case, however, no known heirs remain and rumor has it that a considerable fortune is buried on the family estate.
George goes to work for Benedetti, a litigation agent who represents the lawyers for the Ferro estate. George manages, by strokes of great good luck, to solve a couple of thorny cases in which Benedetti's other, inept aides have failed. But when the Ferro estate documents disappear, George is suspected and the two aides, Bock and Ripert, go off in his pursuit.
George disappears, though, having been abducted by cousin Fred, who is also responsible for the disappearance of the documents. Fred is in league with an Englishman named Ferguson Gibbs; together they engage in moneymaking schemes such as trying to take over a strange religious cult known as the Rayonites of the Left Hand, during whose ritual Fred will try to sacrifice George. Fred and Gibbs are also after George on their way to the fortune. But when they try to lure him with a beautiful woman, Jenny Weltman, George goes off on his own pursuit of the woman.
Finally, due to George's association with a strange character called Croconyan, another hapless pair -- policemen Cre'mieux and Guilvinec -- are also on George's tail. The ensuing series of chases, mishaps and surprise encounters culminates in a shoot-out at the Ferro castle.
The title "Cherokee," as must be clear by now, has nothing to do with American Indians, though Echenoz does seem to play on the name, describing a couple of characters as "redskin," "Bavarian Apache" or "transalpine Cheyenne." In fact, "Cherokee" refers to a jazz recording; George is quite a jazz buff, and "Cherokee" is a recording Fred once borrowed and never returned.
"Cherokee" was awarded the Prix Medicis in France in 1983, yet it seems rather slight in the end, a clever, controlled exercise in style. In a way it recalls Delacorta's Gorodish and Alba novels ( "Diva," etc.), but Delacorta is more fun. While a great deal happens in "Cherokee," none of it seems to amount to much.
The restrained narrative tone adds to the air of unreality about the events taking place, counteracting their very outrageousness. Fred seems only vaguely threatening; in fact, he has killed one of his uncles but brushes off the only passing reference made to it. Bock and Ripert, Cre'mieux and Guilvinec, are the sort of recognizable old comic teams who always botch the job, but the humor is as subdued as all the actions and emotions in the book. When Fred shoots Ripert, he does so "instinctively, as one brushed away a mosquito." When George asks Gibbs whether the Rayonites really want to kill him, Gibbs "answered this with an evasive gesture, as if this eventuality were ... all things considered, of secondary importance."
The reader, too, feels like a bit of a sleuth, trying to understand whether certain elements are significant or incidental: What is the importance of the jazz element? Is there an existential reference in the sign saying "no exit," which George comes up against while fleeing? Why does the impersonal narrative suddenly turn to a kind of Dear Reader voice ("Let us go in") at Ripert's burial? Echenoz is clearly a capable writer in control of his material, but it never quite takes off, and the cool here left this reader cold.
The reviewer is an assistant managing editor of Vanity Fair magazine.