July 04, 1988 12:00 PM

by Lionel Shriver

Wonderful things happen whenever Checker Secretti, the 19-year-old hero of this engaging novel, enters a room. “Everyone eased up, laughed, and took long draughts of their drinks,” Shriver writes. “In his wake they felt suave and attractive….Girls kept Checker in the corners of their eyes and smiled.” What Checker possesses is charisma, that elusive attribute that Shriver explored in her first novel, The Female of the Species, as well. But while Species’ alluring characters used their magnetism to manipulate, Checker is an innocent. A gifted drummer in a small-time Queens, N.Y., rock band, he is delighted with life, and his joy rubs off. On everyone, that is, except Eaton Striker, a lesser drummer who envies Checker’s powers and sets out to turn his bandmates against him. Shriver is a lively storyteller, and she keeps readers guessing to the end. Can Eaton succeed in his mean-spirited quest? Will Checker act on his passion for Syria Pyramus, the mysterious glassblower who is his best friend’s wife? Will Rachel DeBruin, the band’s “spectacularly morose” singer, destroy herself out of unrequited love for Checker? Why is Checker so preternaturally pleased about everything, and why does he disappear for weeks at a time? More compelling even than the plot turns are Shriver’s insights into human nature. Once an anthropology student under Margaret Mead, she has a keen eye for the archetypal characters common to human tribes everywhere: Checker is the revered leader, Eaton the would-be deposer, a boy who in high school “had played a precise role, exactly shy of stardom….In every area [he] was plagued with not-quiteness.” Howard Williams, the band’s manager, is the good-natured loser who yearns so badly to be Checker that he dresses the same, talks the same and attempts to buy a similar bracelet. (“But the only plain one he ever found was brass, and that week everyone stared at him and his skin turned green.”) Shriver’s breezy, hip style can be irritating; so can her slips into psychobabble (“The only way to find an identity is to realize you have one already”). But Checker and the Derailleurs, like its beguiling protagonist, is hard to forget. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17.95)

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