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The Great Fake Book: A NOVEL by Vance Bourjaily (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $17.95; 292 pp.)

February 22, 1987|Jason Berry | Berry is the author of "Amazing Grace," a book on Southern politics, and co-author of a music history, "Up From the Cradle of Jazz" (University of Georgia Press)

In his 11th novel, Vance Bourjaily engages a literary conceit with moorings in 18th-Century English literature. Unveiling is a fair description: "The Great Fake Book" moves from a young man's search for facts about his long-deceased father to the father-as-young-man and his earthy adventures as an amateur jazz player disguised as a newspaperman, all of this revealed through a series of long letters, interlaced with dialogue and a memoir by the elusive reporter.

Samuel Richardson's "Clarissa," a pure epistolary novel published in 1740, established the genre upon which Bourjaily builds, constructing a parallel time scheme grounded in the here and now. As Charlie Mizzourin's quest for buried truth draws him toward a pair of long-lost paternal uncles, Charlie's boss, a liberal Iowa congressman, squares off against a right-wing uncle in his reelection campaign. The congressman writes complaining of dirty tricks at a call-in appearance.

"Next was how come I enjoyed abortions so much? Then gun control, how would I like to have some maniac shoot me and not be armed myself? Then a guy asking me if I favored Fidel Castro--I couldn't figure out for which office.

"So nobody's worried about losing his farm, right? Or wants to hear the latest on the hostages, right? Wrong. All these calls were planned to tie up the lines for anyone that really wanted to talk with me. All out-of-town calls, too. Operator wouldn't say where they came from."

The novel was written before the Iran arms scandal, which has enlarged the background of Bourjaily's picture of Republican politics. Dirty tricks don't fade away; they just keep turning up.

The pages of Mike Mizzourin's memoir, revealed to Charlie gradually by a jealous editor who has hoarded them for years, contain the richest writing in the novel. "He put the cornet to his lips, he looked away, toward his little window, and played a short, meditative phrase of blues, paused, and added another, twice as long, slow and soft . . . coming out so sad and gold, like a gauzy girl in the sunglow putting flowers on a soldier's grave, and I wanted him never, never to stop playing."

Bourjaily's literary architecture occasionally strains beneath the weight of excessive dialogue, but the sharpened political bite reflects a seasoned historical memory and an Augustan sense of wit.

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