THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS
By Kristopher Jansma
Viking $26.95, 253 pages
"I've lost every book I've ever written," says the unnamed narrator at the beginning of Kristopher Jansma's novel, "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards." The "I" is a writer, whose literary attempts began "before my feet could touch the linoleum floor beneath my seat." He wrote his first novel, a mystery called "The Pink Packet Thieves," at age 8 in an airport's Terminal B, where he spent a lot of time waiting for his mother, an airline hostess, to return from a flight. Once, she brought him a gold watch that a passenger had forgotten on the plane. The 22 pages of "The Pink Package Thieves," which "concerned an unnamed boy detective, who is summoned by the Chief of the Airport Police to discover who has been stealing all the pink packets of artificial sweetener from the various restaurants in the terminal" that were accidentally thrown in the trash.
The narrator lost three other books: "a novel, a novella, and a biography. The first is disintegrating steadily at the bottom of a black lake. The second is in the hands of a woman whom I love and will never see again. The third is in a dusty African landfill, wrapped in the bloody tatters of my tweed coat, my gold watch still in the pocket. Only fragments remain, which I've carried with me around the world and back again." All three are versions of events involving the narrator, his friend and successful fellow writer, Julian, and Evelyn (Eve), the elusive actress the narrator loves. As the narrator says, "These stories are all true, but only somewhere else."
What actually is truth? That's the question the narrator confronts and examines, following the advice of his college writing professor to "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." Slanted are the narrator's tales.
There are flashes of J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield's irreverence and touches of Hunter Thompson's zaniness in this entertaining and complex first novel, which reads more like a collection of connected short stories than a fluidly flowing novel. Although it isn't always immediately clear what is going on, each chapter is a version of similar events in different locations.
"The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" is written with style, literary allusions and ironic bite. The plot lines are original and amusing, although sometimes hard to follow. The novel is a literary romp that entertains and gives cause for reflection. The cynicism is balanced with enthusiasm.
The reader is never privy to the narrator's real name. He uses a variety of aliases, beginning with that of Walter Hartright, the detective in Wilkie Collins' novel, "The Lady in White," which he uses as the escort of a high school debutante. Outis, a Greek email tag, is the name by which he introduces himself to Tina "with hair as red as sweet vermouth and eyes so green that I suspect she is only a generation removed from the shores of Galway." Like the proverbial leopard, he changes his outward persona.
At one point the narrator assumes the identity of a fellow writer who had returned to his native Scotland. He becomes a popular, iconoclastic teacher of journalism, until his duplicity is discovered and he is dismissed. He then spends several years teaching "at a school in Dubai, attended primarily by the hashish-addled children of the House of Saud." When being a teacher loses its charm, he takes up "professional plagiarism" — using the Internet to write college essays, which he sells to "the children of the well- to-do." This grants him "decent pay, freedom to travel, and unlimited opportunity to lob my own thought-grenades into the halls of academia." "Plagiarism," he notes, "is the new American art form."
The one constant is his desire to be a successful writer, always in competition with his friend-foe, Julian, who has written a best-seller. The narrator's only published work is a short story that becomes a story within a story.
Julian and Evelyn change identities as well. Julian becomes Anton in the narrator's published story, and then Jeffrey, but remains the eccentric, alcohol-guzzling writer. Eve, the golden-haired actress, plays various roles, yet always the emotionally unattainable beloved. Does she marry the Indian geologist at the rim of the Grand Canyon and become a university wife? How does she come to marry a Luxembourg prince?
The narrator's travels take him to Hong Kong, through Europe, to Sri Lanka and on to Africa where he seeks out Jeffrey's crazy grandfather and is almost mauled to death by a leopard. After a stint in a bizarre writers' colony in Iceland, he travels with Jeffrey to Luxembourg to visit Eve in her role as princess. Looking at Eve's young son, the narrator thinks that "each day [the child will] wonder, has he changed and everything else is the same? Or is it exactly the other way around? Someday he'll see that he can't have one without the other. He can't know he is the same unless everything around him has changed. It's like black spots on black fur — you can't see them, but they're there, all the same."
The novel ends where it began — in Terminal B — as Tina (who is now the owner of the gold watch) and the narrator coincidentally cross paths. He leaves without acknowledging her, but she finds his abandoned manuscript left behind on a cafe table.
In his charming children's story, "How the Leopard Got His Spots," Rudyard Kipling concludes the leopard and the Ethiopian, having once acquired their spots and black skin, respectively, "will never do it again. They are quite contented as they are." Mr. Jansma can't say as much for his characters. But then, who knows — anything might happen.
Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.