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By Sparkle Hayter

Quill, August 1999 $9.95

Reviewed by Tom Kreizberg (8/98)

"I am Tarzan of the Apes," wrote Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1914. "I want you. I am yours. You are mine." And to judge from the events in Sparkle Hayter's THE LAST MANLY MAN (which uses the Burroughs quotation as an epigraph), things haven't improved much since then.

Her fourth outing finds Robin Hudson, intrepid manager of the All News Network's Special Reports Unit, in pursuit of the story she hopes will save her division (a.k.a., the Village of the Damned) from the budget ax: the "Man of the Future" series, in which Robin will try to "pinpoint exactly what made a man a man."

For the series, Robin has lined up several interviews, including a radical feminist who expects the male sex to devolve out of existence; a biochemist whose personal aim -- "nothing less than literal immortality" -- drives him to perpetual exercise; and an eccentric mogul who is developing an ergonomically correct office of the future, complete with flattering female-voiced computers.

The subject that will cinch the series is Wallace Mandervan, a reclusive anthropologist who had predicted disco and aromatherapy and was now rumored to be writing a book on the New Man. Unfortunately, on her way to a meeting with Mandervan's publicist, Robin is stopped by an incoherent man who scribbles an address in her notebook and gives her his hat. Because of the delay, she is late for the meeting and all but certainly misses her shot at the interview.

Losing the struggle against her better self, Robin goes to the address the stranger had given her in an attempt to return the hat. This is all that's needed to begin an adventure that involves her with missing chimpanzees, a cross-dressing animal liberationist, a drug-dealing chauffeur who dates his ex-wife, a dead Frenchman who washes up at Coney Island, an insane reporter out to steal her story, and a crazy old lady specializing in vigilante justice. Oh, and a madman plotting to take over the world.

"Adventure" is the operative word for this mystery. The careful reader of THE LAST MANLY MAN will learn more about staging a raid on a research laboratory than on techniques for interviewing murder suspects or searching timetables for clues. If the adventure is not always realistic -- Robin traipses through some fairly harrowing experiences that would give James Bond pause -- at least Hayter keeps things light, brisk, and funny.

The appeal of this book lies in Robin Hudson, whose narration has a distinctly urban edge, but whose social observations are touched with a contrastingly delicate sensibility. The feminists who envision a world without men come off worse, if only slightly, than the men who envision a world of placid housewives and manly men. Closer to Robin's thinking, perhaps, is the scientist who discovers that men have significantly more brain cells than women, but isn't sure what men do with them.

The theme of the novel is, simply put, the difference between men and women. Most of the characters express their opinion on the subject at one time or another, and several of the plot threads are bound up in their answers. If ultimately more questions are raised than answered, you can hardly fault Hayter; after all, no one else has ever been able to figure it all out, either.

Sparkle Hayter's Robin Hudson series, in order of publication, is WHAT'S A GIRL GOTTA DO, NICE GIRLS FINISH LAST, REVENGE OF THE COOTIE GIRLS, and THE LAST MANLY MAN.

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