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Knowledge is truth in this tale



By Carol Dawson

Algonquin, $22.95

Reviewed by Joyce R. Slater

The cover painting of Texas writer Carol Dawson's second novel depicts the posterior portion of a very large woman, apparently wearing nothing but a pair of blue sandals. With all the hills and valleys, the stretch marks and the cellulite spotlighted, this anonymous woman's butt looks like a relief map of Bolivia.

Repulsed? So cosmetically offended that you don't care to take a peek at the first page? Too bad for you, because you'll never get to know 600-pound Victoria Grace Ransom. Sadder still, you'll never hear her story, a multigenerational Lone Star saga that rivals Dallas.

Dawson (The Waking Spell) bites off more than most authors could easily chew. Chewing and swallowing and talking are pivotal in Body of Knowledge, an oral history if ever there was one.

"First I cite physical conditions," Victoria Grace begins. "I am the last of the Ransoms. There is no one left but me. Since earliest childhood I have remained immured within these grounds, concealed from all but the most private of viewers. This is because a freak's nature admits only limited future social prospects. My destiny lies here."

No one in the town of Bernice has ever seen Victoria Grace. Her only companions in the Ransom mansion are her plants, her books and her housekeeper. She sees herself as a human vault _ the sole repository of the Ransom fortune and the Ransom secrets. Making sense of it all, she concludes, is the reason for her bizarre existence.

The whole mess started with a mint julep, one drunk by Victoria's great-grandfather Garner Ransom, at a hotel in St. Louis in 1908. The drink's refreshing properties so impressed Garner that he and his friend, Archibald Macafee, went into the ice business. That led directly to the oil and the Ford dealerships, and so on. Archibald had the bucks and Garner had the brains. The money machine might have cranked on happily forever, if Garner's wife Arliss didn't have all those high falutin' notions. And if her insult to Macafee hadn't kicked off a malevolent feud of epic proportions.

While Dawson's heroine is overblown, her story never becomes excessive. It smacks of the truth, laboriously reconstructed from the family scrapbook and the memories of the late Viola, the original family retainer. Even as she insists that she's trying to trace other Ransoms, we understand that she's really looking for herself.

Scott Fitzgerald put great faith in the symbolic naming of characters. What's "Gatsby" if not a gentrified tag for a gangster? Dawson, unless I miss my guess, calls her narrator "Victoria" for a lonely, ugly queen who beat the odds. "Grace" implies the amazing kind. Need I explain "Ransom" when we're talking about a hostage to her family's history?

Joyce R. Slater is a writer who lives in Kennesaw, Ga.