November 05, 1990 12:00 PM

by Lucian K. Truscott IV

Warning: This is the kind of book in which the hero talks to his car: “Come on baby, talk to me, take me through your paces, drift me through those curves, rock me baby…purr for me BABY, tell me just one more time what it is truly like.” Like a Tom Cruise macho-epic, Rules of the Road operates on the idea that believable characters and plots are less important than exploring the most important relationship a man can have.

To be fair, there is more here than simple auto-erotica. In his third novel, Truscott, author of Dress Gray and Army Blue, has returned to what is, for him, familiar ground: the armed forces. Career Army Major Sam Butterfield, a former amateur race-car driver, has been visiting his widowed mother at her southern Illinois farm. On his way home to the base he witnesses an attack on two men in a parking lot and steps in to save them. In true no-good-deed-goes-unpunished fashion, Butterfield suddenly finds himself dragged (literally) into a sleazy mess of prostitutes, con men, corrupt politicians and pirated videotapes. But when it seems obvious that he can and should extricate himself, Butterfield doesn’t desert: He’s an Army man, after all. He understands the meaning of loyalty and commitment. (Come to think of it, this is starting to sound even more like a Tom Cruise movie.)

If all this seems farfetched—well, these are only the broad outlines. In fact, very little of the story makes sense. (How is it that Butterfield manages to stumble on evidence about the exact same politician who’d been his late father’s archenemy? Why would good, honorable, loyal Sam involve his elderly mother in his troubles?)

At the same time, most of the characters are made of cardboard: Johnny Gee, the petty con man who becomes the Major’s unlikely partner in fighting crime, wears shiny suits, chain-smokes and says things like “Just pony up the five [dollars].”

This might be forgivable if Truscott presented it with grace. Instead, he writes pretentiously: “You could tell she was wearing makeup, but you couldn’t tell what she was concealing” or “He was cut off from familiar roadways both physical and moral.” Like its hero, this novel is too self-serious to be true. (Carroll & Graf, $18.95)

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