Rings of mystery


A SON OF THE CIRCUS. By John Irving. Random House. 63 pages. $25.

FARROKH Daruwalla is a perpetual foreigner. He feels at home in neither his native India nor his adopted Canada, and he identifies with neither his profession as an orthopedic surgeon nor his advocation, screen writing.

Like the high-wire circus artists he so admires, Dr. Daruwalla's life is a continual balancing act between conflicting loyalties.

In some ways Dr. Daruwalla resembles his creator, John Irving, in whose eighth novel "A Son of the Circus" he is the main character.

Superficially, of course, John Irving is also a resident of two countries (the United States and Canada). But more importantly, he shares with Dr. Daruwalla a penchant for straddling a lot of creative fences, never at ease on either side. A popular novelist with highbrow pretensions and an old-fashioned storyteller with very modern concerns, John Irving is the most unlikely author to capture the public imagination in years. I can think of no more illustrative statement of John Irving's dual nature than to say that he counts among his influences both his former University of Iowa teacher, Kurt Vonnegut, and his professed literary model, Charles Dickens.

"A Son of the Circus" definitely qualifies as one of John Irving's strangest creations, but for most of the way it's among his most satisfying. Like most John Irving novels, it's a sprawling book that swoops around the globe and through multiple generations of history. And it includes a grab bag of typical John Irving topics: perverse sexuality, Christianity, unusual families and untimely death.

On the surface, "A Son of the Circus" is a murder mystery revolving around several members of the posh Indian Duckworth Club, Dr. Daruwalla's social hangout. The book opens with the murder of the elderly Mr. Lal on a golf course. A note is left on the corpse promising more deaths if John Dhar, Dr. Daruwalla's sort-of-adopted son, doesn't withdraw his club membership.

Death threats are nothing new to Mr. Dhar, a celebrity thriller actor in India whose films have at different times managed to offended all castes and religions on the subcontinent. Since it was Farrokh Daruwalla who anonymously created Mr. Dhar's infamous screen identity, it's the doctor who must come to Mr. Dhar's assistance.

At first it seems like the murderer must be one of the hijra, a mysterious group of Indian eunuchs who took offense at the latest Inspector Dhar film. With the help of Inspector Vijay Patel, however, they discover that Mr. Lal's death is only one in a series of rapes and mutilations that have been going on for the past 20 years. Mr. Patel, who has followed the case from its inception, sees in the threat to Mr. Dhar his first substantial lead on the murderer. Heretofore all the police knew about the killer was the bizarre signature drawing of a winking elephant left on the victims' bellies.

So Dr. Daruwalla must dig into Mr. Dhar's past to ascertain who might have a personal vendetta against him strong enough to provoke murder. Things are only complicated by the sudden reappearance of Mr. Dhar's identical twin Martin Mills, separated from his brother at birth by their irresponsible actress mother.

Despite the elaborate whodunnit plot line, "A Son of the Circus" really has no ambition of being a mystery novel. There's little suspense in the search for the killer's identity, which is revealed two-thirds of the way through the book and turns out not to be much of a surprise anyway. "Circus" instead concentrates on the richly detailed family history of Dr. Daruwalla and Mr. Dhar with a dizzyingly large cast of characters interconnected in surprising and often hilarious ways. Most importantly, they're all linked by their search for a purpose.

While the colorful cast of characters is fun, the novel runs out of magic about two-thirds of the way through when the meandering flashbacks and diversions come to a halt. When you finally finish the book, you're left with the same numbing question that all John Irving novels leave you with: What was that all about?

The apparent message is that the only time we don't feel like foreigners in life is when we pretend that we have some control over its outcome.

Dave Edelman writes from Bethesda.

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