FIND COURTNEY

By Melissa Clark

Bridge Works. 221 pp. $23.95

The publisher, perhaps in desperation, calls Melissa Clark's "Find Courtney" a psychological thriller, but it could just as easily be called a Gothic melodrama or the bizarre fantasy of a poet who, in an earlier life, "supported herself as an exotic dancer in Virginia." But whatever you call it, this quirky, sexy bad-dream of a novel is always readable, thanks to Clark's nimble way with words and her very strange mind.

Fanoy ("I never tell people my first name because it's stupid") is a 25-year-old college student in Miami. She broods a lot about the mother who deserted her and the father who abused her. Her mother was an artist, and Fanoy grew up loving the works of Edvard Munch: "They expressed my world as a child perfectly." As a student, Fanoy is a loner. Occasional drunken encounters with college boys have left her disenchanted with men and uncertain whether she is a virgin.

Rich, gorgeous Courtney, who sits next to Fanoy in Abnormal Psych, invites her to share her plush condo. Fanoy accepts, and all is well until one morning when Courtney goes jogging and doesn't return. Fanoy, with her usual passivity, does nothing, except eat Courtney's food, drink her booze and discover the joys of the Shopping Channel. ("All I can say is my mind works differently from other people's because I never want to assume responsibility for other people.") After a week or so, Courtney's father appears. At least he says he is Courtney's father. His name is Bret, he wears an old Hawaiian shirt and turquoise cargo shorts, and Fanoy finds him immensely sexy: "He carried a sort of thunderstorm around him. He disturbed the air, as if his hair was electric." He speaks vaguely of being in the "import-export" business, and, this being South Florida, Fanoy assumes he means the drug trade. Not that she minds. The two of them talk to the police, seek clues in Courtney's favorite bar and call a meeting of her friends that attracts mostly crazies, including a professional psychic and a man who leases bloodhounds and cadaver dogs.

Soon Bret insists that Fanoy come home with him. Home is an isolated, decaying Italianate villa where he lives with a burly housekeeper called Querida, who dresses in black, mutters in Spanish and looks like Gertrude Stein. The villa was previously owned by a celebrated fan dancer who killed her mother. Since Fanoy has brought only her cutoffs and tank top, she takes to dressing in the late fan dancer's exotic clothing: "But in the midnight-blue velvet dress I wasn't so much transformed as resurrected. This was a completely different person I saw before me."

Sex happens rather unexpectedly, and Fanoy reflects: "I could accuse him of rape -- if only I hadn't enjoyed it so much. As it was, just the memory would nourish me for decades. Roses in December. I could have pushed him away or said 'No,' but somehow he knew I wouldn't. It was just like when his damn daughter invited me to live with her. Both of them took one look at my shadow of a self and suspected I would agree to anything."

In truth, Fanoy is hooked: "Now I was the rat who, with one taste of cocaine, pumps the lever till his leg falls off. Food, sleep, thought, art and civilization itself were all pale substitutes for this primal joy." Poor Fanoy decides she's in love. At the same time, she notes that Bret seems to have forgotten his missing daughter. She becomes suspicious. Was he really her father? Might he have killed her? For that matter, the reader may wonder, might Fanoy have killed her?

Bret doesn't really work as a character and probably shouldn't be judged in realistic terms. He's a South Florida Jay Gatsby, self-invented, lacking history or probability, a dream lover who, when he's not plunging Fanoy into a "haze of satisfied lust," says things like "Life keeps forcing me to grow up. And I don't want to," and "The hunter prefers the quarry to be smart enough to keep the game interesting," and "As for you, Miss Fanoy, you don't understand men. We're a mass of tripwires," and "Every little girl wants Daddy." An earlier poet, Sylvia Plath, taught us about girls and their daddies, but Clark certainly drives the point home.

One reads along, savoring the tasty sex scenes and quirky dialogue, wondering where in the world all this is headed. Fanoy is a worst-case Alice in the blackest of Wonderlands, where good sex may light an occasional candle but incest and murder and revenge are the common currency of life. Still, after many dire revelations and a final burst of violence, Melissa Clark offers up a semi-happy ending: Fanoy on a pilgrimage to Oslo, happily contemplating her true dream lover, Munch's "The Scream." In a world in which so many novels are clones of so many other novels, "Find Courtney" is an oddball delight.