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Originally published Friday, July 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"All About Lulu": Bainbridge Island author flexes literary muscles in a winning debut

Bainbridge Island author Jonathan Evison takes on obsessive love, bewildering sibling relations and the world of professional bodybuilding in his debut novel, "All About Lulu."

Seattle Times book critic

Author appearance

Jonathan Evison reads from "All About Lulu," 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle, free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com), and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island, free (206-842-5332 or www.eagleharborbooks.com).

A knockout in its first half — and mostly pretty good in its second half — "All About Lulu" by Bainbridge Islander Jonathan Evison (Soft Skull Press, 340 pp., $14.95) is a debut novel worth getting excited about.

With a desperate/exuberant élan, the book kicks around ideas about obsessive love, bewildering sibling relations and the world of professional bodybuilding ("paining and gaining"). Also under consideration in its pages: the soul-saving possibilities of the American entrepreneurial spirit and the mutability of human character.

This last has particular, painful bearing for the book's narrator, William Miller, because the girl he loves and who once loved him — his stepsister Lulu — keeps changing beyond all recognition. And evading him. And tormenting him.

Or is Will, in failing to read his situation accurately, merely tormenting himself?

The plot: A year after Will's beloved mother dies of cancer, his father, a Santa Monica bodybuilder who goes by Big Bill Miller, starts dating a grief counselor named Willow. And into 8-year-old Will's life comes Willow's young daughter, Lulu.

Will's smitten state is complete and instantaneous: "Lulu was an entire population. You could string adjectives together like daisy chains and not describe Lulu. Verbs came closer: soaring, crashing, yearning, laughing, dreaming, kissing. But metaphors came closest: Lulu was a white-hearted starburst, a silver-crested wave. Lulu was the sound electricity makes."

She and Will invent their own private language. She becomes his ally in "meat resistance." (Vegetarian Will's dad and bodybuilding twin brothers — "their Adam's apples had outsized their brains" — are meat fanatics.) She beguiles him with her talk about the mating rituals of sandhill cranes and the advantages of radio over TV.

She and Will, in short, grow together "like two stalks into one plant."

Then Lulu, at age 15, goes to cheerleading camp and something changes — drastically, irrevocably. When she gets home, she freezes all contact with Will. Her only explanation: "I'm just not myself anymore."

Will spends close to 300 pages trying to figure out what this means, especially after Lulu ditches Santa Monica for Seattle, where any communications from her sound like both an apology and a Dear John letter. In the meantime, Will also has to figure out what to do with his life and how to absorb the transformative shocks his twin brothers, dad and friends keep giving him.

He's lured into "Hot Dog Heaven," a Venice Beach frankfurter stand whose owner dreams of expanding his business into China. He studies philosophy and is taken with David Hume's notion that "there is no sensation, no single experience in which the unity of the self is perceived." Eventually, he discovers he has a voice made for radio, which launches him on a non-fast-food career.

But each of these episodes is punctuated by attempts to re-establish contact — or definitively break it off — with an increasingly fragile Lulu.

Evison is a member of the radio comedy troupe Shaken Not Stirred, yet there's little that's shticky or sketch-routinelike about the novel. From the moment Will describes his father's gym-centric world, it's obvious you're in the hands of a real writer: "I know the acrid odor of sweat-soaked rubber mats, the iron clang of clashing weights, the tingle of sweaty back skin ripped from vinyl, the heaving and grunting and chest pounding. And none of it holds any romance for me."

The novel falters in its latter stretch, where there's a problem built into the structure of the book. Lulu has to elude Will's grasp or there's no story. But because Evison succeeds so splendidly in making her as arresting and unpredictable as Will believes her to be, things just aren't as lively when she's absent from the page. Big Bill, sympathetic Willow, the rambunctious twins and Will's various fast-food/academic mentors offer diversion — but they can't compete with the protean Lulu.

Still, there are plentiful pleasures to be had in this bittersweet, bracing book about "paining and gaining" on more levels than one.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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