July 03, 1989 12:00 PM

by Carol Muske-Dukes

Willis Digby, the weird but right-minded heroine of poet Carol Muske-Dukes’s odd first novel, edits the letters column for Sisterhood, “a bimonthly cross between a feminist TIME and liberated Ladies Home Journal with a readership of five million.” (As the publishers of Ms. would attest, that circulation proves this is fiction.) After five years on the job, Willis is losing it: “It is my opinion that I am going mad in the capacity of letters editor. The letters themselves started out being amusing, then disturbing, then haunting, then capable of driving me slowly…out of my mind.” To Muske-Dukes’s credit, however, Dear Digby is not one of those plotless novels where journalism’s underlings float through soporific streams of drugged semiconsciousness; actual things happen.

Since Sis publishes “articles on Getting to Know Your Cervix, complete with a couple of sisters sitting around with hand mirrors earnestly comparing labial puckers and yawns,” it’s not surprising that its mail displays a proclivity for the unusual. Among the regular letter writers Digby deals with are a flight attendant who spikes passengers’ drinks with blue toilet cleaner; Dino Pedrelli, who calls rape “Got Lucky Sex”; and WITCH, which stands for Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. Willis’s personal life is no less bizarre. Her boyfriend, an actor, sublets an apartment from a pair of midgets. Her mother is an artist of so little talent that when a gallery is robbed, all the paintings are pilfered except for Mrs. Dig-by’s. And her father was a general who died in Vietnam, but only after his daughter visited his Pentagon office wearing an antiwar T-shirt.

Willis gets into absurd situations—involving the toupee of a local anchorman or rapes at a state hospital—which she reports in a self-aggrandizing tone that makes you wish she’d shut up and take up a sport or something. Dear Digby also pushes this era of irony we’re all chuckling through to an extreme. And while many of the book’s idiosyncratic characters are amusing, none is very original.

Still, like the film Harold and Maude, this book suggests how liberating it can be to simply enjoy being a crazy mixed-up person. When Muske-Dukes (she’s married to actor David Dukes) gets beyond the farcical one-liners, there is a subtlety to her characters. Dear Digby, an upbeat story with an offbeat plot, makes for a good, quick read—and ought to make Goldie Hawn or Shelley Long a dandy movie comedy. (Viking, $16.95)

You May Like