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Weekly Alibi A Payneful Book

C.D. Payne's Civic Beauties: A Musical Novel

By Steven Robert Allen

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  I won't name any names, but certainly there are many, many contemporary commercial novelists who hack out books with the explicit intention of baiting Hollywood producers into transforming their fictions into celluloid. This is the first time, though, that I've come across a novelist who's so cynical, so base, so vile, so evil (yes, evil) as to write a novel with the depraved intention of having it transformed into a Broadway musical.

It's all quite sickening. Really.

Of course, there are worse crimes than being cynical or depraved. One is being boring, and I'm sorry to inform you that when it comes to being boring, C.D. Payne violates every law in the book. Payne's first novel, Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp, has been compared to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. It's been lauded as an underground cult classic. Lots of people apparently loved that book. Somehow Payne got lucky with that one, because his second novel, Civic Beauties, can only be compared to the crayon-scrawled musings of a bird brained 12-year-old.

The story, such as it is, goes something like this. Cara and Toni are darling 15-year-old twins, the daughters of Horace B. Mason, a senator and pastor from Ohio who's running for vice president of the United States on the Republican ticket. Cara is a sweet, thoughtful virgin with a heart of gold. Toni, on the other hand, is a loudmouthed tramp who's set on disrupting her father's campaign. Both twins get involved with the election effort, and for a variety of stupid reasons that I'm not even going to bother going into, they wind up becoming national celebrities.

The twins eventually hook up with a bunch of other teenagers, all connected in one way or another with the campaign. There are the goofy Flunch kids -- Hamler, Forest and Dola -- offspring of the Republican presidential candidate. There's the noble Dan, a tree-hugging environmental activist. There's Renk, a fantastic whistler who becomes the twins' publicist and agent. There's Howard, a homosexual chess player who becomes the twins' fashion consultant. Finally, there's Thom, Toni's mutton head ex-boyfriend who becomes the official campaign dishwasher.

The kiddies spend most of the novel tiptoeing around in the dark, trying their damnedest to boink each other -- and mostly succeeding. Lots of hijinks ensue, most of which are astonishingly unamusing. Payne's plot meanders, twists, dawdles and eventually ends up in the middle of nowhere, 20 miles from the nearest payphone, in a strange land where Payne doesn't speak the language and the natives hate his guts.

Payne allows the twins to take turns narrating the novel. This aspect of the book held the most promise. It was often difficult to tell which twin was where doing what with whom. Unfortunately, Payne doesn't have the talent or sophistication to make this ambiguity very entertaining. Instead, he sticks in all kinds of international intrigues and silly, pedestrian political jokes, none of which amounts to much of anything. To tell you the truth, the whole fiasco just made me tired. The writing is juvenile and hackneyed. The situations are implaus-ible and too wacky to be funny. The characters are painfully artificial, even for a comic novel.

In place of a decent story, Payne bombards the reader with gimmicks. Yes, there are plenty of pop cultural references. Yes, there are plenty of superficial jokes about the sorry state of our consumer-driven economy and our scandal-fueled media. Yes, at various unlikely moments throughout the novel, Payne's idiotic characters burst into spontaneous song. But so what? Why should I care? Why is this funny?

The only people who will enjoy this book are There's Something About Mary fans and those who laugh when circus clowns slip on banana peels. Civic Beauties is bland and predictable from start to finish. I'm outraged that I wasted a week of my life reading this pathetic excuse for a novel. If anyone wants a copy of Civic Beauties, mine is available. I'll pay you to take it off my hands. (Aivia, paper, $12.95)

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