Pleasant's not enough


DIXIE RIGGS. By Sarah Gilbert. Warner Books. 202 pages. $18.95.

LITTLE Annie Fannie, a comic strip character who appeared in Playboy magazine, was a voluptuous blonde whose breasts were much, much bigger than her brains. In each strip, the fair-haired Ms. Fannie suffered through comic misadventures fraught with sex and sadomasochism which would be happily resolved despite her bubble-headed blunderings.

This pretty much sums up Sarah Gilbert's new novel, "Dixie Riggs."

OK, there are some differences. Dixie Riggs has coal-black hair. She is a Southerner. She's not real big-busted. But the similarities between the two heroines are much more striking.

Moreover, the reasons for reading about these heroines are similar. Both are comic strips. Entertainments. Diversions. But Little Annie Fannie takes five minutes. "Dixie Riggs" might set you back a few hours. How do you want to spend your time?

"Dixie Riggs" is your basic girl-meets-boy Bildungsroman. Simply put, naive Dixie finds the love of her life, loses him, suffers through the loss, experiences many things -- including the betrayal of friends, differentiation from family and acceptance of self and -- of course -- gets boy back. Many books have similar narratives, so you don't need to read this one for its plotting pyrotechnics.

The characters are a bit less classic than the plot, though they fall under the genre Southern eccentric. These kinds of characters, written to be funny, salt-of-the-earth, plain-speaking paradigms, populate much of Southern literature. I have nothing against such characters, but I have seen them written better by Fred Chappell, Clyde Edgerton and Lee Smith -- to name a few of Gilbert's Carolina compatriots.

The characters in "Dixie Riggs" are exceedingly broad. Very few have any spark of humanity; rather, they are cartoons drawn to further the plot. After awhile, their lack of dimension struck me as irritating.

Now for themes: The book doesn't have many. If anything, it suggests the good will triumph and the wicked will get their faces slapped. Also, it emphasizes the importance of feet and of mothers.

Really and truly, there is nothing wrong with "Dixie Riggs." It is very amusing in sections and not offensive. However, I am not sure it is an important or necessary book to read. Whether evaluated as humor, Southern fiction, women's fiction or general fiction, it is hardly at the top of its class. On the other hand, if you were stuck some place and had nothing else to peruse, "Dixie Riggs" would pleasantly pass the time.

It's just that in a complex world -- with lots of books competing for attention -- pleasant probably isn't enough.

Diane Winston is a reporter for The Sun.

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