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BOOK REVIEW

'Sweet and Vicious' is neither, but it entertains

Sweet and Vicious, By David Schickler, Dial, 256 pp., $23

There's a big bang in David Schickler's "Sweet and Vicious": a hawk slams into a windshield in the first sentence, and a blustery tale full of larger-than-life coincidences is born. As the bird screeches out its last "brap," three hoodlums come into focus -- misogynistic and evil Roger, simple-minded thug Floyd, and the gangster with a heart of gold, Henry.

The stooges shake off the surprise and quickly, deftly, move into a rollicking cross-country plot fueled by stolen diamonds, corrupt evangelical ministers, and a spunky redhead. Like characters in a surreal soap opera, they never grow far beyond hollow caricatures, which ultimately renders Schickler's first novel fairly implausible. But the book is quick and dirty -- and entertaining -- even though it never rises beyond the level of a colorful action novel.

Henry roughs up his cohorts when Roger tries to defile a pretty woman, and some of the best writing occurs here -- blunt, hard, and real: "I kick his hand before it can close on his gun, then step on the hand, cracking finger bones. Roger howls, yanks his crunched hand to his chest, cups it like he's found a baby bird."

Henry scampers off with the nine "planets," a set of glittering diamonds that he and his team were meant to bring back to the boss.

At a gas station, Henry runs into Grace McGlone, a rugged redhead obsessed with Pepsi and with heaven. Seeing the brutish guy pull up in a truck stirs something in Grace's loins, so she walks through a car wash and climbs in the truck, dripping wet.

Sex is off limits until they're married, since Grace has been "trying for heaven" ever since a famous evangelical preacher raped her when she was a teenager. So the couple set off to get married and to get to know each other, in that order. They head out into their preposterous future with one of the book's most irritating refrains: "Tallyho."

While the book is a fun read, it is a bit like a circus -- all steam and no substance, as if Schickler is so awed by his characters' weird traits and catchphrases that he forgets to give them human qualities or heart. Unlike his first book, "Kissing in Manhattan," short stories set in a fantastic version of New York City, the novel never really presses its characters to make them seem real.

Instead, there's big, expansive talk about fate and science that sounds like fodder for "Chicken Soup for the Gangster's Soul." Why, for instance, do Henry and Grace come together? Henry's new age explanation: "What I mean is, sometimes the atoms of the world rush together and burst out of their regular day jobs, and give you a show. They dare you to do something fresh, something right, something beautiful."

The couple gladly take up the dare, wedding quickly and beginning a cross-country race ahead of the thugs who are after the diamonds. Grace and Henry have sex "like we're staking holy ground" in uncomfortable places and give away the diamonds to ordinary people who inspire them: an awkward dancing teenager, a pimply kid who sells fried dough at the county fair, a grumpy waitress.

Grace and Henry see themselves on an epic journey; they toss away treasures like Robin Hood, shining the light of diamond "planets" on ordinary people who appear beautiful in some way. It's a heady ride: They redeem their sins and wreak revenge.

Schickler reaches too far. The book is campy and action-filled, not an earnest gangster's bible. The writing is best when physical and raw; however, the prose begins to drag whenever it tries to probe any deeper. Once we figure out that Henry is the kind of character who will embrace his freedom by claiming he's "got the horizon in his lungs," reading becomes a race to finish the book and find out what happens, to be freedof the improbability of it allrather than to savor the experience.

Eventually, an amazing set of coincidences brings together all the book's major players: the thugs, Henry and Grace, and the preacher. There's a ludicrous and bloody face-off at the steaming Painted Pots in Yellowstone Park. A man in a chicken costume plays a bit part, and the preacher who defiled Grace and hundreds of other young girls in his trailer gets a chance to do something good.

Like any second-rate TV show, the book can be mesmerizing, but it falls far short of its grandiose intentions. The creation of this entire universe, from big bang to bloody end, takes just a month and just a few hours to read. The book is more saccharine than sweet, and more violent than vicious. But it's a strangely entertaining read, so as Grace would say, "Tallyho."

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