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Outside the Dog Museum exhibits more whimsy than plot

OUTSIDE THE DOG MUSEUM
By Jonathan Carroll.
Doubleday, 243 pp., $20.

Deborah A. Levinson

CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

Outside the Dog Museum is one of those books that draws a person in by title alone. I couldn't resist anything subtitled "a novel of love, death and architecture." Indeed, Outside the Dog Museum tackles all these lofty subjects and more, encompassing by its end shamanism, the supernatural, spirituality, and a Biblical story.

Author Jonathan Carroll's writing style is crisp, witty, and full of clever dialogue. Carroll has an ear for puns and snappy turns of phrase -- he opens the novel with "I'd just bitten the hand that fed me when God called, again."

God, in this case, turns out not to be the supreme being, but the Sultan of Saru, a tiny, Disneyesque Persian Gulf nation where everyone is wealthy and happy, where magic works and djinn and verz (protective animal spirits) mingle with the population. After reading a profile of ultra-famous avant-garde architect Harry Radcliffe in Time, the Sultan tries to convince Radcliffe to build him a dog museum. Radcliffe, however, is uninterested. "Your Highness," says Radcliffe, "the only reason you want me to work for you is because I was on the cover of that magazine." Replies the Sultan: "I also liked the coffeepot you designed. Come over to my hotel, Harry, and I'll give you a car."

Whimsy permeates the book. Early on, Radcliffe flashes back to his nervous breakdown, and Carroll gives the breakdown's onset a strange twist -- Radcliffe can tell he's gone insane because he buys 250 yellow rubber pencil sharpeners shaped like various world landmarks. Carroll/Radcliffe continue:

"Anyone want an African gray parrot named Noodle Koofty? I named him on the ride back to Santa Barbara. He sat silently in a giant black cage in the back of my Mercedes station wagon, surrounded by objects I can only cringe at when I think of them now: three colorful garden dwarves about three feet high, each holding a gold hitching ring; five Conway Twitty albums that cost twenty dollars each because they were `classics'; three identical Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs albums, `classics' as well, twenty-five dollars apiece; a box of bathroom tiles with a revolting peach motif; a wall-size poster of a chacma baboon in the same pose as Rodin's The Thinker ... other things too, but you get the drift."

Carroll's plot, however, does not scintillate as brightly as his prose. He weighs down the original premise -- a selfish architect achieving spiritual awakening through the construction of a dog museum -- with too many supernatural elements, and even throws in a Saruvian civil war led by the Sultan's cannibal brother. Radcliffe's realization of the dog museum's True Purpose makes for an interesting retelling of a Biblical story, but the serpentine explanations of spirits, God, miracles, and their relation to the world wind all too slowly through the book.

Outside the Dog Museum does yield some unusual insights on the nature of God and the human niche in the universe. As a piece of fiction offering spiritual guidance, it's much more readable than most, though its logic is muddier than Richard Bach's. Still, Carroll's writing is so fresh and funny that Outside the Dog Museum is a pleasure to those who savor words, if not to those who crave plot.