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Gus Van Sant's first book hazards a novel take on infotainment.

By Tonya Janes

Pink, by Gus Van Sant (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). Cloth, $21.95.

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  GUS VAN SANT'S antihero Spunky Davis is a lurking, aging, bald and paunchy fellow who sports a tan overcoat and shiny loafers. He's the kind of guy our mothers may have warned us about. "I am spoiled by the system. I am not pure. Please save me," he pleads, begging the reader of Pink to take pity on this moderately successful maker of infomercials, hopeful Hollywood sci-fi screenplay writer and friend to young men. His frequent visits to leatherette-laden diners and the projection rooms of university film schools allow Spunky to hang with grungy, hip-talkin' Jack and Matt, two young gay aspiring filmmakers who, strangely enough, double as celebrity look-alikes and messengers from a far out dimension known as "Pink."

Lost already? Me too. Van Sant's quirky first novel is at once entertaining and disturbingly erratic and unfocused. As director of such award-winning independent films as Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and To Die For, Van Sant has been a prominent figure in the recent rise of the cutting-edge indie flick. He's also a longtime musician, director of music videos, photographer, painter, fashion designer, and once spent two years in a Manhattan advertising firm creating commercials. What can this guy not do?

Pink is a rambling tale of the glory of youth and boyish misdeeds as revealed in the corporate-controlled, image-obsessed culture of Las Vegas, the "informmercial" (sic) capital of the land. It's also a kind of primer for low budget filmmaking with advice on how to create really cool images that help us escape the plaintive, dull world of the everyday. Or, put another way, it's a transcendent voyage of comic, New Age proportions designed to reveal the redemptive power of story and film.

Jack, Spunky's dreamy, tousled-haired unsmiling friend, looks a lot like the late infomercial teen idol Felix Arroyo who, as informed readers will note, doubles as River Phoenix. Spunky laments the sad drug-induced death of Felix and finds refuge in the spirited presence of his friends Jack and Matt, who perform vaudevillian antics that involve nudity, arousal, a yellow bag and lots of molten white kittens. Strange indeed.

This is the kind of work that longs for the critical eye of an editor to weed out numerous and lengthy footnotes, jerky transitions, sketchy drawings and mismatched fonts. On the other hand, there's something fresh and weirdly liberating about a book that knows it's wacky and all-over-the-place, but clearly doesn't care. The multiple allegories and doubling effects just won't quit: There's the "alcoholic, cross-addicted bargain shopper" Blake, frontman of the band Speechless who, like Kurt Cobain, doubts his media-created image and commits suicide, leaving a musically inclined wife and progeny. There's the constant reminder that the film industry employs calculated, number-crunching tactics just like the infomercial/commercial world. There's even talk of the duplicity of "the money shot," a term used to describe what lures viewers in to see the film or commercial at hand. According to Spunky's directive, a close-up of an expensive actor's face operates on the same level as the porn film's cum shot. They don't call him Spunky for nothing.

All in all, Pink is much too diverse to be categorized or summed up, and one gets the feeling that Van Sant planned it this way. Fans will love the quasi-allegorical nature of the stories, the way in which certain characters double as real, Van Sant-approved celebrity figures. Is that Keanu Reeves? Courtney Love? Is he talking about River Phoenix's sexual preferences or is he making this up? Was that really how the filming of My Own Private Idaho went? How about all that talk of drugs on the set? We can only guess.

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