BIG TIME

By Marcel Montecino

Morrow. 493 pp. $19.95

Withthe cinematic success of "Roger Rabbit," "Batman" and "Dick Tracy," it's probably not altogether bad to woo an audience with bold caricature, heavy chiaroscuro and bright primary colors.

In "Big Time," Marcel Montecino does just that.

Sal D'Amore, an aging but still aspiring musician, singer and songwriter, horse player and hustler, can't meet a woman without her wanting to jump into bed with him. Since he was 12, girls have been "drawn to him like cats toward warmth."

Nicky Venezia is a maniacal New Orleans pimp, pusher, loan shark, bookie, thief and murderer, jealous of D'Amore's attraction for women, boastful of the vicious control he exercises over his hookers -- "one of the best feelings in the world is having a woman sell herself for you" -- and ready to break a face or take a life for the smallest offense.

Angel Valdez is a jockey forced to throw a race to satisfy the debt accrued by a big blond wife with a $25,000 nose.

Angel and LaBelle -- the wife -- appear only briefly but the lost race causes D'Amore to fall into a hole "one hundred seventy-nine thousand, two hundred twenty-two dollars" deep; a hole that could be his grave after Nicky roasts him with a blowtorch and then puts a bullet in his ear for manipulating the family book while acting as a part-time bartender and custodian of the betting slips.

Chased by Nicky and a couple of his not-quite-so-crazy brothers and henchmen through the Mardi Gras parade, in a sudden deluge that "struck the parade floats so forcefully that one in-drag member of the nearest float's Krewe was washed from his perch on the back of a gigantic papier-mache swan and swept screeching over the side and into the panicked stampede of fleeing carousers," D'Amore steals a car and speeds away from New Orleans, the town that is dearer to him than any woman could ever be.

Fade out. Fade in.

In 1932 young Giovanni Gemelli falls out of a tree and breaks his back, hips and ankles. He learns the shoemaker's craft at a workbench next to his father's in the prestigious House of Gemelli in Naples. More bad fortune strikes the family: wife dead, sons killed in battle, daughter emigrated with her husband to Brazil, the elder Gemelli and his stunted, crippled son left alone to endure the end of the war and the horrors that followed.

They emigrate to Rio de Janeiro, where Giovanni buys a shoemaker's shop with hoarded gold, works brutal hours, makes a great success with shops all over the world and faithfully nurses his father until the old man's death in 1971.

Then, at the age of 56, Giovanni is smitten by "a rich, throaty, sensual laugh that made the hairs on his shoulders vibrate as if electrified -- a deep, groin-massaging sound that bespoke the knowledge of some basic, beautiful secret -- a wonderful wanton sound that whispered promises of midnight ecstasies." The laugh belongs to a 16-year-old slum beauty. They soon are married, and Giovanni is initiated into a good deal of midnight ecstasy, which results in Isabel's pregnancy and death in childbirth.

The infant, named for the dead mother, cries incessantly. Doctors call her condition "irritable beyond consolability." Giovanni happens upon the only thing that will soothe her, the records of the late Billie Holiday.

So it comes as no great surprise that Sal D'Amore, masquerading as a cruise ship piano player named Marco Toledano, after a near-miss on his life by a Venezia assassin, should meet young Isabel Gemelli, traveling with her father, and discover that she has a voice like the late, great Billie. Matched to the new songs she inspires him to write, she might be even better.

Isabel, like D'Amore/Toledano, who has not lost his fascination for women, is lusted after by practically every member of the opposite sex she meets. She has willfully enjoyed the action since she was 15, a case of the fruit not falling far from the tree.

Soon D'Amore/Toledano is her teacher, composer, mentor and lover. Soon, in Cannes at the huge rock-and-roll convention, he engages the interest of Karl Diederich -- a "very Germanic-looking man with moussed white-blond hair brushed severely back from his brow and tied in a short, tight ponytail" -- who takes Isabel in hand and makes her the biggest star since Michael Jackson.

Which lands Isabel and Toledano several nominations for the Grammys. Which lands them in all the magazines. Which ends up with the Venezias out to get their $179,222 -- plus three times that in vigorish -- after which they will surely put that long-delayed bullet into D'Amore's/Toledano's ear.

"Big Time" contains lots of invention but not many surprises. Montecino doesn't bother much with subtlety and, in fact, will often tell us three or four times, in slightly different words, what might have been said just once. In that regard he might have profited by a lesson taken from the cartoons.

But with some lazy days in hand, "Big Time" and its splashing, dashing, crashing characters and story might be just the book you're looking for.

The reviewer is the author of the Edgar Award-winning "Junkyard Dog" and of the "La-La Land" series.