"A Trip to the Stars" by Nicholas Christopher

A kidnapped little boy, his lost aunt and a fantasy about people finding themselves in the days of flower power.

Published February 25, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

If you were looking to write a crossover fantasy novel -- one whose audience extended beyond sci-fi enthusiasts and aging Tolkienistas -- you could hardly do better than to study "A Trip to the Stars." With this zestful riff on an enduring genre, Nicholas Christopher should easily satisfy the admirers of his previous novel, "Veronica." He is also likely to gain new readers, including those who foray reluctantly into so-called imaginative literature.

Here, as in the earlier work, Christopher creates imaginary places that are through-the-looking-glass versions of his real settings. The characters in "A Trip to the Stars" have a knack for stumbling into vanishing ghost towns and celestial Indian pueblos. Christopher's achievement is to ground the way-out stuff in an absorbing story; this, of course, is where the crossover part comes in.

In 1965, on an outing to a New York planetarium with his young Aunt Alma, 10-year-old Loren Harris is kidnapped by a mysterious woman. She turns out to be Loren's biological aunt (his late parents had adopted him), and she delivers the child to his biological great-uncle, Junius Samax, a rich eccentric who lives on the outskirts of Las Vegas in the Hotel Canopus.

Formerly a luxury inn, the Canopus has become a sort of guesthouse for members of Samax's extended family and for scholars and scientists with elusive projects, such as finding meteorites and tracking rare species of spiders. Samax promptly calls Loren by his birth name -- Enzo -- and the boy grows up happily under his unique tutelage.

Back in New York, Aunt Alma (or Mala, as she renames herself) blames herself for her ward's kidnapping. In despair, she drops out of college, enlists as a Navy nurse at the height of the Vietnam War and eventually serves as the assistant in a mind reader's nightclub act. In Vietnam, she has a brief, ecstatic affair with a wounded Air Force navigator, who goes missing in action as soon as he returns to active duty.

As this synopsis suggests, Christopher is examining -- or at least considering -- the human impulse to search for lost things and first origins. (One of the hangers-on at Samax's hotel seeks evidence of Atlantis.) Yet neither Enzo nor Mala, who narrate their adventures in alternating chapters, spends all that much time looking for the other. True to the spirit of their era -- the '60s and '70s -- they are far more interested in finding themselves.

In the course of their quests, which unfold in the Nevada desert and on the islands of the South Pacific, they acquire and dispense a good deal of information, not only on astronomy but also on botany, classics, arachnology, techniques of mind reading and other arcana. Christopher, who obviously loves such lore, displays real skill in tucking it into the narrative without halting the page-turning pace.

Any quibbles? A big one, for me, was the disparity in how the novel's central event affects the protagonists. Far from being victimized, the kidnapped Enzo winds up with a terrific education, wealth and exposure to mystical experiences. He is a successful stud to boot, losing his virginity at the age of 15 to a Chilean seductress whose "lost things" agenda is turning up vampires. Mala, on the other hand, jettisons her future as a classicist ("I had a gift for dead languages") to become an X-ray technician. In most of her sexual encounters, she is manipulated by predatory men. Her one shot at happiness, it seems, will come from finding her navigator. She craves true love -- just like a woman -- while Enzo revels in good sex.

Another niggling issue is the occasionally uneven prose. A well-regarded poet, Christopher has seven collections under his belt as well as a nonfiction study of film noir. In "A Trip to the Stars" he achieves passages of considerable lyricism, which make the clunkers more jarring -- even when they echo a noirish sensibility. Thus a halfway house is "a scrapyard for those whose dreams had been busted"; a character with deformed hands is "born missing his pinkies."

After a few hundred pages, though, I stopped underlining the clashes between formal and down-and-dirty diction; I just kept reading. This novel makes demands on your time and your sense of reality, but there's a payoff: the sheer pleasure of "what happens next?"

By Polly Morrice

Polly Morrice is a Houston writer.

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