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Say It Ain't So, SalRushdie or no Rushdie, this novel stinks 

Professor Malik Solly Solanka, protagonist of Salman Rushdie's newest novel, is in his mid-50s, grew up in Bombay, was educated in England and now, alas, has fled to New York's teeming metropolis, leaving behind a wife and young child. He is also wealthy and able to live in an aristocratic manner while looking down his nose at everyone else who might choose similar financial rewards. Somewhere along the way, he begins a passionate love affair with a stunning, exotic Indian model. The sex, we're assured, is enviable.

After reading Solanka's dossier, it will surprise few who don't already know such things that this bit of biography aptly describes author Salman Rushdie himself in recent years.

Determining how much of an author's real life is in any novel is a worn (and irrelevant) parlor game. Unless said novel offers little in the way of plotting and, save some dazzling turns of phrase here and there, leaves a lingering feeling of distaste, disgust and disdain. Which happens here.

Reading Fury, it boggles the mind that this is the same author who tackled Big Issues such as multiculturalism, immigrants, and the entire Islamic faith in the modern classics Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses. Not only tackled them, but, all the while, conjured deliriously vivid prose so polished it took one's breath away. Popular culture, classical literature, death, love, hate, sex, politics, airplane disasters -- everything in the pot and every morsel as spicy and tasty as dinner with Emeril Lagasse.

Even dabbling in lighter fare -- 1999's paean to rock & roll, The Ground Beneath Her Feet -- couldn't knock Rushdie from his mighty literary throne. Until now.

The sparkle, the dizzying but grounded wordplay, the classical allusions Rushdie has dazzled us with in the past -- all are now watered-down, helter-skelter and haphazard in Fury, a vulgar, indolent and self-indulgent novel.

This is being billed by the author and his publisher as his first American novel. To make sure we never lose sight of such grand endeavors, Fury includes frequent nods and mentions of Jay Gatsby.

That's not enough, though. A proliferation of wearisome laundry lists from the summer of 2000 in New York exacerbates the hollow portrait. See for yourself: Springsteen plays the Garden, Gladiator patrols the cineplexes, Rudy and Hillary vie for attention, the suddenly renamed Gush and Bore battle for the presidency. Tiger Woods is here. Latrell Sprewell? Yep. Recycled crudities from Bill and Monica? Check. El Duque and Elian, too.

Thus faux philosophy ensues: And if culture was the world's new secularism, then its new religion was fame. . . Such banalities may do the trick for Rushdie's fellow glam expatriate Tina Brown in the gloomily glossy Talk magazine, but how does such dreck find its way into a Rushdie novel? What's next, Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards jersey?

The novel's problems begin with Solanka, a spoiled, less-than-pitiable and self-absorbed academic. His doll-making hobby has become a career, spinning beyond control while earning him millions of dollars. He's disillusioned by the co-opting and dumbing down of his creation, Little Brain, who has now been cross-merchandised to devastating TeleTubbies effect. Solanka is miffed, yes, but still unable to refuse his royalties.

Ah, but Professor Solanka has fury, and furies, within him. He finds himself snookered one evening in his British manse and Dionysus drives him to loom over his sleeping wife, gleaming knife in hand. His solution: fleeing to New York. The real Greek god driving the narrative, unintentionally, is Narcissus, but Rushdie makes no mention of him. Perhaps the visage is all too familiar for a man who, having survived a nine-year fatwa, now fills his time hanging out with Carrie Fisher in L.A., blabbing with Bill Maher and grabbing cameos in Bridget Jones's Diary. One of the book's best lines rings all too true: The more he became a Personality, the less like a person he felt.

All the while, Rushdie's furies await. He plays incessantly on the mythic image of three angered women. Which is kosher, to use some of the author's suddenly tin-ear slang, since it gives Rushdie/Solanka room to exhibit abundant sexual prowess, proof that Bob Dole isn't anywhere in sight.

The menage a trois metaphor of fury is hammered home to duller and duller effect. The (once) cute allusion grows tiresome. The fabulous fabulist has lost his way and, like Joe Montana's dreary days as a Kansas City Chief, nothing looks, or feels, right.

This reader felt fury of his own rising up, a desire to yank the good professor from his newfound Upper West Side luxury and ask what is so monstrously torturous about a life of riches, adoring marriage and nascent parenthood?

The jilted wife, Eleanor, is soothing, sexy and, despite her ill treatment, still pining for Solanka from across the Atlantic. The neglected son, Asmaan, calls frequently. Solanka provides the reassurance of constant grammar and locution lectures and, belatedly, throws a stuffed elephant in the mail.

A younger woman, victim of an incestuous literary father, can't resist Solly's charms once she learns he is the Daddy who conceived Little Brain. The toy doll becomes the catalyst for a series of sexual fantasies one would expect from, oh, I don't know, a paunchy middle-aged man with the monetary means to seduce a woman young enough to be his daughter.

And still no mention of Neela, the glowing Shiva and, natch, a highbrow documentarian fighting for a valiant international cause no one else knows. In a novel filled with clunky scenes, perhaps Neela's are the clumsiest. Men fall off ladders, crash cars and engage in other slapstick nonsense at the mere sight of her. Get it? She's hot. Ah, yes, got it.

As does Solly. He gets it often. Or gets Neela, rather. Undoubtedly a woman with this sexual power and ineffable allure lusts for just one man: frumpy, grumpy Solly Solanka. Anyone forget how great the sex is for Neela with Grandpa Solanka? Turn another page and you'll soon be reminded. One might suggest here the Hollywood (Bollywood?) version (say, Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones) but that's already been done to similarly disastrous effect in a forgettable action movie.

Neela's enervating effects on her many admirers represent the novel's ultimate (lack of) depth, but the competition for the worst overall moment in Fury is staggering.

Consider ill-fated forays into cybernet science-fiction backstories involving Solanka's new and -- nothing obvious here -- pure world of dolls. The ruminations on creator and created carry brief momentum, then buckle as swiftly as a marionette suffering snipped strings. Indeed, this world of masks and continuums makes Dungeons & Dragons compelling by comparison.

It gets worse. An absurd denouement resembling a ribald Scooby Doo episode, replete with a jaw-droppingly inept deus ex machina, brings the trio of Solanka-stained women into his bedroom in the wee hours. The reader, bloodied, broken of spirit, trudges onward as Solly all but shouts, Zoinks! Not all three of you! You ladies must be -- ta-daa -- furious. Behind the stage, no doubt, props clatter to the floor with spectacular volume, signaling the customers of the craftsmanship behind these less-than-Chekhovian endeavors.

At one point, Solanka loses close friend Jack Rhinehart to murder. He considers the image of his compadre in a casket: Jack in the box from which he would never rise up. Help. A related subplot focuses on three more women, young Manhattan socialites, murdered with concrete slabs by a wacko wearing Disney masks.

The young socialites, you may have guessed, are enamored of kinky sex at all hours. It's the New York Sex Olympics, Millennium Nymphomania -- and retiring British professors are first in line. No tired male fantasy or cliche is overlooked. Without Rushdie's imprimatur, one suspects this manuscript would have smoothly sailed straight to the trash can.

The only possible saving grace: chronicling New York, and America, in the final moments of an economic golden age before the terrors of September 11, 2001. Alas, Rushdie captures occasional superficial glimpses, but no heart. America's brawn and vast consumption are caricatured but, in the end, elude his once-estimable grasp.

It is heartbreaking to see one of the world's most gifted literary novelists limp through such sludge. One thought played over and again, page after disappointing page: This cannot be a Salman Rushdie novel, it simply can't. How to explain this? Maybe Carrie Fisher wrote it.

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