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Gifted Writer Disappoints with Creaky Plot, Sketchy Characters in `Drum'


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``The Painted Drum'' by Louise Erdrich; HarperCollins ($24.95)

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Louise Erdrich's novels have always drawn their power from characters so finely drawn, so completely and believably human that even the strangest actions seem, if not reasonable, certainly understandable.

In her 2001 novel, ``The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse,'' a woman who lived for decades as a Catholic priest seemed utterly real, her undetected deception completely credible.

It is a surprise, then, that Erdrich's latest novel, ``The Painted Drum,'' should feel so false. It is marred by sketchy characters, clunky coincidences, pat resolutions and actions so inexplicable that even the characters performing them don't believe what they've done.

The painted drum of the title is an Indian artifact, and the novel weaves back and forth through time, detailing the drum's origins and how it has affected lives.

It is an Ojibwe drum, spirited away from a reservation on the northern plains by an Indian agent and discovered in a New Hampshire attic decades later by an estate appraiser. In a credulity-straining coincidence, the estate appraiser, Faye Travers, is of Ojibwe descent and her family just happened to settle in the same New Hampshire town as the Indian agent's descendants.

The novel is at its best in the second section, set in the past, a story of love, betrayal and a child lost to wolves. In this section, the drum is created in a fugue of grief. The lyricism and mysticism that seem incongruous in the contemporary portions of the novel are less strained here.

The third section is set in the present, where three children's lives are saved by the drum; Faye Travers returns in the fourth section to wrap things up.

Erdrich, a gifted writer, hasn't lost her knack for beautiful imagery. But in ``The Painted Drum,'' even soaring imagery can't conceal the creaky machinery of her plot.

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(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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