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THE STORYTELLER : by Harold Robbins (Simon & Schuster: $17.95; 307 pp.)

February 16, 1986|Dick Lochte | Lochte is the author of the novel "Sleeping Dog" (Arbor House), winner of the Nero Wolfe Award for Best Mystery of the Year. and

Before Irving Wallace and Sidney Sheldon and Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins, before even Jacqueline Susann, there was Harold Robbins. With a reported quarter of a billion books in print, Robbins, the most-popular of contemporary novelists, has been constructing romans a clef about the rich and the restless for so long we tend to take him for granted. Every other year, a new blockbuster of his appears to give critics fantods and, regardless, finds its way onto the best-seller lists and into film form. What is usually forgotten is that on occasion, he will eschew other actual charmed lives to concoct a yarn based on his own humble origin. These--his debut novel, "Never Love a Stranger," and, arguably, his best, "A Stone for Danny Fisher"--are close in style and substance to the hard-boiled novels of the '30s in which tough street kids fight their way out of the proletarian jungle to achieve wealth and power. His new novel falls into this category.

It is his most obviously autobiographical book--not his actual story, of course, but with a similarity here and there. His protagonist Joe Crown is a writer who uses a talent for tale-spinning to lift him from the depths of New York's Lower East Side to the rarefied atmosphere of high-hat Hollywood. The part of the novel that deals with time and place is very enjoyable. In describing the art of economic survival in the 1940s--how deals were cut with Brooklyn crime bosses, Manhattan publishers and Hollywood studio heads--Robbins shows how good a writer he is. His prose is lean and straightforward, with a keen, cynical edge. When he moves on to other, more intimate matters, however, he seems to lose control, and the results are not so commendable.

Robbins' concentrated focus in this instance may be the result of an unintentional autobiographical influence. An abandoned infant, he was reared by foster parents. While most of his novels have been rich, possibly even overripe, with multi-generational material ("The Carpetbaggers" had enough back story to fill two movies), "The Storyteller" is concerned almost solely with the writer Crown. His parents are bit players. His grandparents aren't even mentioned. The story line is basic--street kid makes good as novelist.

Not that Crown is your usual Horatio Alger hero. In his youth, he is a World War II draft dodger, a dope-dealer, a pimp--albeit in the last two cases, half-heartedly. It is Robbins' unique talent that he can make these early falls from grace seem minor peccadilloes. But he is not able to make acceptable Joe's major failing--he's obsessed by sex. Family ties, marital vows, business opportunities, none of these matter a whit when there is woo to be pitched. Robbins describes Joe's Herculean hay rolls in details guaranteed to warm the cockles of a urologist's heart. But the average reader may be only fitfully amused by the almost parodic weight and breadth of his amorous accomplishments. For a storyteller, Joe's problem is that he is in a constant rut, and happily so. Let's hope this isn't another autobiographical touch.

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