MISDEMEANOR MAN

By Dylan Schaffer

Bloomsbury. 339 pp. $23.95

San Francisco lawyer Dylan Schaffer's daffy, delightful first novel concerns a public defender named Gordon "Gordo" Seegerman, who is representing a fellow charged with exposing himself in a shopping mall. The unambitious Gordo's real passion, however, is not the law but Barry Manilow. Or, as Gordo calls his hero, MBM, for Mister Barry Manilow. Gordo's main concern about the flasher case is to get it settled, because he's the lead singer for a Manilow cover band, Barry X and the Mandys, which has an upcoming gig that MBM himself may attend, and if MBM is pleased, that could lead to a recording contract.

But first the lawyer must deal with the fellow who allegedly exposed himself, one Harold Dunn, who confessed to a similar misdeed 10 years earlier, back when he drank. Since then he has sobered up, with the help of a charitable conglomerate called Giving Out Dinner, also known as G-O-D and located in a city very like Oakland, where the author lives. Dunn is G-O-D's accountant, and claims he was just out buying shoes when two women and an 8-year-old girl charged him with exposure most foul. In legal thrillers, of course, no case is ever simple, and Harold's alleged flashing soon expands to encompass murder, conspiracy and millions of dollars. Schaffer handles all this deftly, with more than a few inspired plot twists, but he keeps coming back to MBM.

I for one am not going to make snide remarks about Barry Manilow, because Gordo's passionate advocacy has convinced me that my mind may have been poisoned against this great artist by the small-minded society I inhabit. Manilow is, he insists, "the most successful recording artist in the history of popular music." Why? "Listen to the music, I dare you. Barry is hope and hopelessness. Barry is love, desire, passion. Barry is exuberance. . . . My friends, listen carefully: Barry Manilow is the truth. . . . You can hardly blame people for finding reasons to spurn him, to slander him, to ignore him. Barry is the daunting, overwhelming, terrifying truth. And a lot of people can't handle the truth." Could it be that author Schaffer is putting us on? Not according to an interview with him that accompanied the novel. The man loves his Manilow.

All this is thought-provoking, to say the least, but there is more to enjoy in "Misdemeanor Man" than Barrymania. Schaffer has a good eye for the oddities of human nature, a skeptical mind and a nice way with a phrase. He has Gordo say of his client, the flasher, "I am a reasonably screwed-up person and I have never, ever contemplated unwrapping my package in a shopping mall." Of a young woman who works in his office: "I believe she is the least competent office worker on the planet. In general, her demeanor at work is that of a guest at a spa." On a break in the flasher case: "We're out of the clouds and we see the damn airport. I'm not saying we're sipping cocktails at the airport bar yet. We're getting closer." On his former girlfriend: "A perfect rear end does not an ideal partner make." On Maeve, the belligerent lesbian drummer for Barry X and the Mandys: "She has the focus of a six-year-old hopped up on Froot Loops." On a bar near the courthouse: "Like most of its patrons, it is coarse, crusty, hoarse, haggard, slouching purposefully toward Gomorrah." On the hero's family: "If the Seegerman clan had a coat of arms, it would say, in Latin, 'Hounded, Trounced, and Luckless, but Still Cautiously Optimistic.' " The bad luck of the Seegerman clan is focused in this story on Gordo's widowed father, a retired detective who is afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. Schaffer offers a bittersweet portrait of the old man, who was an alcoholic, a lousy husband and an all-around jerk to begin with, but whom Gordo is determined to care for. At one point, when the father threatens to jump out a window, a weary Gordo reflects: "If my father commits suicide, I will certainly be entitled to a brief continuance of the Dunn trial. Why am I trying to save him?" Schaffer, a criminal defense lawyer, has Gordo reflect darkly on the jury system: "There is no reason whatsoever to think that a process in which twelve people selected at random, thrown together without experience or training or preparation, barraged with testimony, evidence, and instruction on the relevant legal principles, and then forced immediately thereafter to discuss the case and arrive at a verdict, are any better at divining the truth of a given situation than a coin flip. Actually, it's worse than a coin flip, because jurors come to court with biases and preconceptions." Gloomy thoughts, these, so let me close with the news that Schaffer is hard at work on the next novel in the Seegerman series, fearlessly titled "I Right the Wrongs."