There is little that is funny about the society Bill Fitzhugh describes in his riotously funny novel, Cross Dressing. His is a Los Angeles that might long for the relative sanity of The Day of the Locust. It is nothing less than a Dante's Inferno of misery, a dystopia of consumerism in which the child-abuse rate rises along with the prosperity.

But, like Scarmouche, Fitzhugh seems to have been born with a gift of laughter along with a sense that the world is mad. It is not clear that he is fully aware just how mad not to say depraved the world he has created seems to the reader. It is clear, though, that with this third novel (the previous two are Pest Control and The Organ Grinders), Fitzhugh tightens his grip on a reputation for absurdist black comedy. He sees the world through a glass, darkly, combining the savagery of Tom Sharpe with the light-heartedness of Donald E. Westlake a neat trick, but then, neither of them owns a pair of rose-colored glasses, either.

Dan Steele is a hard-charging creative director of an advertising agency who views people in demographic terms. To him, for instance, Scott Emmons, a mopey, confidence-lacking copy writer at the agency, is a Backsliding Climber, a Paul McCartney-listening, dating service-dependent, United Way-supporting, one-bedroom-apartment-renting model hobbyist. The worm turns, however: When Dan steals Scott's one brilliant idea and the resulting ad campaign becomes an overwhelming success, Scott gets himself a gun.

But Dan has other problems. His widowed mother, suffering from bipolar disorder, is given to such acts as stealing and crashing an 18-wheeler rig. His identical twin, Michael, a Roman Catholic priest, has come back from Africa ill and uninsured, and Dan admits him to the hospital on his insurance.

When Michael dies, Dan faces charges of insurance fraud. Nothing minor, either, as the bill for Michael's short stay in the hospital totals $329,442.09. That doesn't include the cost of the inadvertent amputation of Michael's legs, for which the hospital, after realizing its billing error, gives him a credit.

Dan's lawyer sees no way out for him. If he had killed his brother she could probably get him off, but juries hate insurance fraud. Half-jokingly she suggests that he assume Michael's identity as a priest.

Pursued, though he doesn't know it, not only by Scott, but also by a determined insurance investigator and a thug from Michael's African past, Dan follows his lawyer's suggestion. Here he takes up with Sister Peg, a nun who runs a nearly bankrupt Care Center for lonely, mistreated, and abandoned souls.

Gradually transformed by his new uniform and a less-than-pure admiration for Peg's inner and outer beauty, Dan begins working hard for the center and thinking of ways to raise money for it. In one hilarious dream sequence he approaches a bishop with a money-making scheme to niche-market Catholicism as Cath-o-lite: We've cut 90 percent of the damnation to bring you the religion you want. A profoundly serious question lies at the base of this romp: How was it possible . . . in a nation as rich and generous as this one, that people could end up homeless and hungry? Questions such as that crop up often, along with didactic little passages on topics like Catholic doctrine on prayer, baldly revealing the author's research. He also tells us about corruption in world famine-relief efforts and why advertising agencies are like Satan. This is not as intrusive as you might think.

Everything spirals down at rapid-fire pace. People and things close in. Dan's pursuers close in on him; Peg's hidden past haunts her; the venal bankers descend on the Care Center property to turn it into a strip mall with the sort of stores that prey on the poor. What can save the day? Why, a magnificently fraudulent media con job to raise money for the Care Center. The various threats to Dan are also resolved neatly, if violently, which is to say that all the Really Bad Guys get their just and fitting desserts. Perhaps things are awash in a bit too much blood at the end; it tends to suggest that our problems can easily be solved if we just waste all our enemies.

As for the covetous glances that Dan had been casting at Peg, let's just say that they were reciprocated, and that he was not the only one wearing religious garb not strictly sanctioned by the church.

Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.

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