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Codrescu's 'Messiah': 30 books in one?


"Messiah," by Andrei Codrescu. Simon & Schuster. 366 pages. $25.

The ending of every story, according to this book, is an illusion.

Stories, it declares, go on long after both the teller and the telling are finished.

"Messiah" could have gone on for another thousand pages and still Codrescu -- serving up Scheherazade on the half-shell -- would not have been done.

By turns, the story takes place in two of the most fascinating cities on Earth: New Orleans and Jerusalem. The simultaneous sanctity and profanity of those capitals allow the author, the world-class free associator known as the poet Andrei Codrescu, to twist his Transylvanian heart out.

Because the novel is about the end of the world (as we know it), I won't give too much away.

But the book's title and a quick glimpse of the glow worms with which Codrescu baits his sexy hook -- a Crescent City summit of the Great Minds of All-Time on the eve of Mardi Gras, the end of the 20th century and Armageddon -- give an idea of what to expect.

"Death strolled at leisure . . . What gives death such confidence?"

"Disguise was essential to the enjoyment of the flesh. Carnival -- carne vale, the farewell to flesh -- was the essence of [the] city."

It is possible to make love to Amelia Earhart and Joan of Arc and anyone else who catches your eye in cyberspace, except that Saint Joan is often predisposed and Amelia may not be the aviatrix of your dreams if what you desire is someone "more poetic, gentler, sadder."

"Television is the portal through which people pass into the afterlife, while still alive."

"I'm not your Christ . . . others were crucified after me and long before Jesus. A row of crosses as long as the Akbar seacoast stretches between us."

And so on.

Codrescu, a Louisiana State University professor of English and National Public Radio commentator whose essays often appear on the Op-Ed page of The Sun, slips wry observations from his journalism into his fiction and writes the way John Coltrane blew tenor saxophone.

He throws in the kitchen sink with the plumbing trap still attached.

There are easily 30 books in this novel -- one in which a beautiful orphan girl from Bosnia is compared to a new language -- and in this way "Messiah" is like the dictionary. Arrange the words just so and you can find every story ever written.

This is a potentially exceptional book buried inside a merely entertaining one, a deep tray of philosophical bon-bons wrapped in a cartoon. "Messiah" is a witty parlor game and fun to read out loud, but if Codrescu had shot his story in black and white, it might have been a classic.

Why does there have to be an evangelical television preacher -- in whose eyes can been seen an image of Satan masturbating -- named Elvis?

Why does so much of the plot have to pivot on $2.1 million in lottery money?

How much is enough?

I am as delighted by excess as I am curious about that foreign land called restraint, but Codrescu -- who once filed his dispatches from the corner of Melville Avenue and Frisby Street here in Baltimore -- is a mad scientist of letters whose recipe for monstrous fiction has only one direction: Add more.

Magician, rein thyself!

Rafael Alvarez is a veteran reporter for The Sun. His first book of fiction -- "The Fountain of Highlandtown -- was published in 1997. A second book of short stories -- "Orlo and Leini" -- will be published in September by Woodholme House.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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