CRUMBTOWN

By Joe Connelly

Knopf. 260 pp. $22.95 Crumbtown, a dreary little place out there "where dummies . . . were a dime a dozen," tracing "a long history, their missteps chronicled with pride, passed from one generation to another," is strictly a figment of Joe Connelly's quirky, hyperactive imagination, but it's more than that. Everyone has "his own version of Crumbtown . . . called home," one that transcends any and all barriers: "It wasn't a race thing; it wasn't a religion thing; it was a crumb thing." To put it another way, Crumbtown is Anytown, U.S.A.

But is Crumbtown fiction or is it fact? That's another matter altogether. Yes, "Crumbtown" is a work of fiction -- a funny one, not to mention original and surprising -- but it's a work of fiction about how we've managed to blur beyond distinction the difference between fiction and fact. It's a novel about a bunch of odd ducks who commit a wacky bank robbery, then find themselves turned into the raw material of television cops-and-robbers melodrama, as conceived by the exquisitely named Brian Halo, "the third-biggest mass media superagent in New York," and written by Rob Landetta:

"Rob was 23 when he wrote his first television pilot, 'The Monkey House,' about homeless teens living in the Bronx Zoo. His 'grit opera,' which he directed himself, lasted two seasons, and was quickly followed by: 'Black Tide,' clam diggers vs. oil refinery, half a season; 'Veracruz,' hard-bowling vigilantes in a busted mine town, two episodes; and the short-lived 'Death Valley Days,' snowbelt refugees on a desert oasis, canceled in preproduction. His last project, 'Exley,' about a burned-out building inspector, had been cooling on the studio shelves for six months. He'd directed two deodorant commercials in the last two years, and was due to turn thirty in less than four months. Rob could see the other side of the hill now, the long downward climb."

He has a chance to reverse directions with "The Real Adventures of Robin Crumb," based on the adventures of Crumbtown's own Don Reedy, who as the story begins is 10 years into a 15-year sentence for bank robbery. With "Happy Jones, the twins Tim and Tom, all wearing the black masks that Mrs. Lasagna had sewn," he'd robbed the Dodgeport Savings and Loan, but on the way out he'd had an epiphany and tossed thousands of the stolen bills into the air for the "worn-out men and women waiting patiently for him to finish."

Now he's almost 40, attending "every counseling session and therapy group they gave," trying to be a model prisoner: "Career planners met each Monday, and dealt with problems the prisoners typically faced in getting and holding a minimum wage job. They asked the men to play out common workplace scenes, each one taking a different role: how to explain a murder conviction in a job interview; how to deal with coworkers who objected to being called 'bitch'; how to resolve disputes without the use of choke holds." Then all of a sudden he's paroled, under contract to Halo Productions as an adviser to "The Real Adventures of Robin Crumb," having, "in exchange for his early probation, forfeited all current and future rights to any representations of his life, both fictional and otherwise."

Don is a strangely charismatic guy, not especially handsome but catnip to women: "Don never had trouble talking to women. He lied to them; he made up stories." He hasn't exactly articulated it, but he's figured out that people find the fake every bit as appealing as the real, perhaps more so. His behavior at the bank has made him something of a local hero, a Crumbtown Robin Hood, so when he gets out of prison he's greeted warmly -- except by the twins Tim and Tom, who skipped out on him after the robbery and somehow never were prosecuted for their role in it.

It was a setup, of course, but Don is determined not to get himself into more trouble by trying to exact revenge and ending up right back in Creosote Correctional. Yet within hours of his release, he's managed to lose the cell phone he's supposed to use to stay in touch with his parole officer, he's "carrying a gun he didn't want to use," and he's generally up the creek with no paddle in sight: "From the moment he stepped out of prison he'd been a step behind everything, acting without thinking, actions that made him feel so apart, like someone was pointing a remote control, clicking RUN IN, or SHOOT, or RUN AWAY."

But, hey, this is television, "a lot like Crumbtown, only more so, easier to get lost in, the lines between the laws." The cops on the streets are TV cops -- "the best TV cops were the ones who could speak into the camera without trailing their eyes or having to swerve the car" -- and the make-believe bank is going to be robbed by make-believe robbers. The lead role -- Don, that is -- is played by a former child star, Little Eddy, "the white orphan who's adopted by the black cop" in "The Two of Us." It was "one of the most popular TV series in history," but now Little Eddy's a cokehead living in fantasyland.

Still, Brian Halo wants him, and what Brian Halo wants, he gets. When he and Rob Landetta decide they need real money for the holdup scene, they get it, courtesy of Crumbtown's mayor, Maury Threetoes. As Rob explains to Don: "We did a bunch of tests; it has to be just right. That's why we're using real money, fifties and hundreds. Fifty thousand dollars' worth. Because we tried the fake and it didn't look the same. You just can't fake real money."

It doesn't take long for the light to switch on in Don's head. He reassembles the old gang and sets about "robbing the robbery," i.e., pulling off a real robbery to swipe the real money from the fake robbery. It's a form of rough justice, since what Don thought "was real had been built out of lies, and what was real, the truth behind the lies, had been made from lies as well." In a world where everything that happens is grist for television's mill -- a world where everything is "reality television" and life is just one great big show -- why not rob the fake robbers and then turn that robbery into a whole new line of TV shows?

That's pretty much what happens, though how and with what consequences must be left to Connelly to tell. By this point the reader will not be surprised to hear that a good many surprises are in store. Some of these involve a beautiful Russian emigre named Rita, whose estranged husband loves her so much he wants to kill her, but who finds herself irresistibly drawn to Don. Some involve a cop, Detective Harry Hammamann, who's madly in love with Loretta, who's married to the twin Tim: "Three more years and Harry could retire, spend more time on his writing. That's how he met Loretta, the creative nonfiction class they attended together, the old Widows' Hall on Gambit. She wanted better adjectives for her real estate properties. Harry was going to start a novel."

He never does, at least not within the pages of "Crumbtown," but that doesn't matter. The whole story is right here in Connelly's smart, engaging novel, which doubtless soon will be sold to the movies, rendering the distinctions between fact, fiction and fantasy even more obscure than they already are.