BOOK REVIEW / Mum's a devout fruitcake: The museum of love - Steve Weiner: Bloomsbury pounds l5.99

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THE ONLY thing that's simple about The Museum of Love is the writing. 'I was Jean-Michel Verhaeren. I was Catholic. I was 12 years old and wore a red and black hunting jacket. My hair was brushed up in front. I had a speech impediment.' But the picture the writing creates is rather more blurred. By way of stylistic orientation, try to imagine Gunter Grass, Jeanette Winterson and Jack Kerouac convening at a computer keyboard to spin a fantastical yarn about death, gender and down-and-outs on the great American road: 'The Tin Drum Sexes the Cherry on the Road'. Any help?

Weiner studied writing at the University of California and moved on to film animation. The Museum of Love may be a work of fiction, but one artistically closer to the latter discipline than the former. Weiner throws in all the basic ingredients of the rites-of-passage first novel: boy feels alienated from incomprehensible parents, boy can't get the right girl, boy runs away in search of the good life. It's the side order that sets it apart: boy has hallucinations, boy has boyfriends, boy is on good terms with death; possibly, boy is death.

The book starts off weirdly, and then gets weirder. Jean-Michel is growing up in a French-Canadian backwater on the shore of Lake Superior. In St Croix, where the presence of a priest and a prison would seem to indicate some sort of conventional moral code, it's not just the native Americans that are out of the ordinary.

Jean-Michel's father is a psychotic prison officer who hoards murder weapons, his mother a pretty, devout fruitcake, his brother an albino cripple. Our hero, with a speech impediment, a feminine manner and a tendency to go in for tonsil-hockey with his own sex, is the normal one. The problem is that his partners all commit suicide.

Understandably upset by this, and by the oppressive oddness of his parents, Jean-Michel takes to the road and tries out different lives. 'I was an Ojibway,' he says at the beginning of one chapter, 'I became a sailor' in another.

Pretty soon, though, he's back with his parents, who commit him to a reform school, and he only escapes by conferring sexual favours on a visiting colonel from the French Foreign Legion. No sooner is he back than he unwittingly urges his brother Ignace to drown himself, and then he's off again on a pan-continental odyssey in which he becomes a hobo, a derelict, a Negro, etc. On his travels he discovers that if he thought he had it bad, the social orphans he comes across, all of whom get the chance to tell their story, have got it worse.

Wherever he fetches up he visits the local museum, each one dedicated to death or suicide or religion or love. They confirm that life is a grim, phantasmagoric affair. The road also teaches him that you can't escape your parents, who somehow follow him around North Ameria. In the last chapter Jean-Michel becomes a prison guard, like his dead father before him.

As will by now be obvious, The Museum of Love defies summary. It is formulaic but also makes free with the constrictions of time, and it commutes between reality and a whole bunch of other-worldly scenarios. Blurb writers usually reach for the usual adjectival suspects, 'magical', 'surreal', 'dark'; but other words they could usefully have chosen might include 'baffling', 'preposterous' and 'smart-arsed'. Jean-Michel is a deranged reworking of a venerable literary figure - a kind of Everymadman. As with most demented outcasts you need to be superhumanly patient to want to keep him company.