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A book exploring the friendship between Michael Jackson and a youngster should probably never begin a sentence with "This may sound strange "

Yes. It will sound strange. This is the late King of Pop we're talking about, a man whose utter weirdness, whose visual and conceptual oddness, whose nose, for goodness sake, was permanently etched in our collective consciousness.

At the time of his death he was exhaustively rehearsing for an impossibly complex series of London concerts that most assumed would never happen. They didn't, but for an unpredicted reason -- one clearly still open to debate.

To some extent, Jackson's death was the ultimate career move. While no one has completely forgotten the child molestation accusations or baby-on-the-balcony madness of "Jacko," we were reminded that first and foremost the man was a consummate entertainer and a true talent.

To Frank Cascio, he was also a friend, and Cascio explores this friendship in the compelling but irrefutably dubious "My Friend Michael."

As the author puts it, the goal with "My Friend" is to humanize the man, to create a portrait of an "ordinary" friendship: "My greatest hope is that, as you read this book, you can put aside all the scandals, all the rumors, all the cruel jokes that surrounded him later in life, and come to know him through my eyes."

It's an admirable wish. It's also an impossible one.

Casico met Jackson as a 4-year-old through his father, general manager of a five-star Manhattan hotel. A lasting friendship began, one that, in typical Jackson fashion, was anything but typical:

"The doorbell would ring late at night, and [my brother] Eddie and I would know it was Michael. We'd wake up, run to give him hugs and show him whatever new toys we had and tricks we had learned."

It is worth noting that at the time, Jackson would have been around 26 years old.

Much of what follows reads like a greatest hits of MJ facts and rumors. Case in point, the much discussed "Jesus juice." Jackson referred to wine this way "as a way of justifying its consumption: if Jesus drank wine, so could we." To anyone who followed the star's tangled life, this ain't news, but it's still fascinating, to say the least.

There are romps around Neverland, "humorous" pranks ("At Disneyland, we'd pretend to kick Mickey Mouse's ass"), the appearance of a 13-year-old doppelganger known as "Little Michael," Lisa Marie, the birth of kids Prince and Paris, and even, interestingly, girls shuttled into MJ's bedroom.

Oh, and this: "While recording a song called 'Monkey Business,' Michael had squirted his chimp Bubbles with water and taped him screaming in response."

That story is meant in good fun, I guess, but much of Cascio's tome is warts and all. While he takes great pains to defend Jackson against many of the allegations against him, he does not ignore some of the issues that helped contribute to his early death. Take, for example, his description of MJ's state just hours before the nonsensical "Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Special."

Cascio arrived at Jackson's hotel room and found a locked door -- and a sleeping Michael:

"'You have to get ready! What happened?' He rolled over and moaned. All at once I knew what had happened, and just like that, my naive belief that Michael wouldn't let his medicine interfere with the show blew up in my face

"Shaking him awake, I asked, 'The doctor was here, wasn't he?' -- already knowing the answer. In a very slow voice, he said, 'Yeah, Frank. I was in so much pain. I couldn't do it. I was in so much pain.' "

It's a prescient moment, and the whole story of the concerts -- which occurred between Sept. 7 and 10, 2001 -- is a high point.

Cascio's victory, if we can call it that, is a hollow one. He tells a story that is undoubtedly compelling, about a pop icon who was nothing if not legendary. But the story of Michael Jackson invariably includes details that are downright unnerving, and they sabotage his attempt at describing a "normal" relationship.

"My Friend Michael" is, then, an odd bit of posthumous rehabilitation. What we take away from the book is not the "ordinary" nature of the Cascio-Jackson friendship. Instead -- and this is not the author's fault -- we're still stuck on Wacko Jacko.

Specifically, I'm still stuck on an image. It's "The Sleeping Prince," a gotta-see-it-to-believe-it kitsch masterwork 'that Michael commissioned with my brother Eddie and me [Cascio] as royal guards protecting Prince as he sleeps in his throne."

Sounds strange, doesn't it?

Christopher Schobert is an editor at Buffalo Spree and a frequent film and book critic for The News.

> NONFICTION

My Friend Michael

By Frank Cascio

William Morrow

326 pages, $25.99