December 12, 1988 12:00 PM

by Rita Mae Brown

Bingo and sex are both about available numbers, and whether Brown is talking about a B-4 or a “be mine,” the anxiety, frustration and humor of each game is given a joyously comic turn in her eighth novel. Like her 1978 Six of One, this book relies for its humor on the elderly Hunsenmeir sisters, Julia, 82, and Louise, 86. Together they are a pair of widows saucy enough to be The Golden Girls. But their exploits are only one of the attractions in Runnymede, a town on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border that’s divided by the Mason-Dixon Line. Narrated by Nickel, Julia’s bisexual daughter, this novel follows three interconnected plots. The first turns upon Julia and Louise’s efforts to snare the new man in town (he, too, plays church-sponsored bingo). The other plots focus on Nickel’s personal and professional lives. As editor at the local newspaper, she is trying to raise enough money to buy the paper from the retiring owner. She is also having an affair with the paper’s male lawyer. With the brisk timing of a good stand-up routine and almost as many one-liners, Brown merges these stories by relying on broad comedy and a gift for dialogue. Despite the plentiful slapstick, though, Brown is concerned with raising issues of individuality and sexual definition. Halfway through, Nickel is lectured on relationships. “You need to be someone’s Number One and vice versa,” says her friend Mr. Pierre. “Detachment is fine for your profession but not so fine for your life.” In another conversation Nickel wonders, “If the price of honesty is getting your head bashed in or losing your job, who but the brave are going to tell the truth?” Throughout, the relationship between a community and its ability to include or exclude individuals, to absorb or reject difference, is humanely explored with a style that minimizes rhetoric while maximizing laughter. There are 291 pages in Bingo, but a reader will run out of text long before running out of interest. (Bantam, $18.95)

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