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The Exile by William Kotzwinkle (Dutton/Seymour Lawrence: $17.95; 277 pp.)

June 14, 1987|Lawrence Christon | Christon is a Times staff writer.

It may be that creating the novelization of the movie "E.T." required William Kotzwinkle to hang around venues of the movie industry, where in addition to "E.T." note-taking, he observed its types and tuned into the style of its dialogues (the book, incidentally, was a No. 1 best seller in 1982). In his latest novel, "The Exile," we're given a rounded enough picture of the social and some of the professional life of actors, writers, agents and executives--plus ancillary figures, such as a housemaid who steals jewelry to buy cocaine and returns it once the coke sale is made--to suggest a high-level piece of reportage tinted with the wryness of a sophisticated mind that has seen more than enough.

It's a great deal less likely, however, that Kotzwinkle was on the scene in Berlin just before its fall in World War II--particularly in his focus on the milieu of shrewdly resourceful black marketeers and the shifty maneuverings of Nazi military officials whose power base is crumbling.

But the evocation of both settings is rendered with a sensual immediacy that allows you to smell the grimy cold of Berlin under siege as well as hear the crackle of undergrowth desiccated by the Southern California sun--it's the fine novelist's gift, and one of "The Exile's" pleasures.

This is hardly a picture book though. There's an ambiance of cynicism and anxiety common to both settings, a sense of people standing on insubstantial ground. To say that "The Exile" is a psychological thriller may put a pejorative damper on it, as we conjure images of suave schemers driving terrified virginal victims screaming into the night. That's the category, but the plot of "Exile" is a frame for a Jungian deliberation on living archetypes that swim in the pool of the collective unconscious and occasionally gather and rise with enough force to shatter the surface of individual consciousness.

David Caspian, Kotzwinkle's protagonist, is a reflective, somewhat humorless screen actor in his mid-40s who, though successful, has always been a bit of a blank, a man who could be drawn out of reality by the sight of a dragonfly. He has the kind of fluid ego ideal for the actor's sensibility. For some time, particularly during walks through the Hollywood Hills, he's allowed his mind to wander and rest on a recurrent scene in Berlin where a theatrical bit player named Felix has been recruited to work some black-market schemes. What begins as Caspian's idle fantasy takes on a living, absorbing shape as the details of Felix's life and associations begin piling up. Felix becomes more and more of a temporal alter ego, and his danger is shared by the increasingly alarmed Caspian, more than 40 years and 6,000 miles away.

The cunning, amoral Felix is a character who serves Caspian well as Caspian draws on him to play in a sci-fi epic (everyone tells Caspian it's his best work in years). Off the set, Caspian has an increasingly difficult time shaking Felix. As Berlin is ready to fall and the noose of intrigue begins tightening around Felix, Caspian has a visceral fear for this life so peculiarly tied to his own (Felix only experiences Caspian as an odd presentiment). In addition, all of the characters in Felix's life have counterparts in Caspian's present.

Caspian's therapist (in Felix's world a blunt, powerful Nazi colonel out for Felix's neck) offers the clue that links both worlds. "Jung called it the integration of the shadow," he says. "Usually it begins with understanding little pettinesses, hatreds, jealousies . . . you've somehow leapt straight into the great shadow of the race."

Kotzwinkle is not a careful prose stylist--I don't know what a "fainting chair" is, but I do know that a "pack of coyotes running off with a pet in its mouth" is an imprecise image. Kotzwinkle is a first-rate storyteller, however. "The Exile" is less fanciful than his recent "Fata Morgana," which also dealt with bewitchment; its details give it the weight of actuality, and it gathers momentum.

What makes "The Exile" unusually disturbing is its suggestion that the collective unconscious is not a stagnant pool of inert psychic residue, and that terror is not a matter of dragons and nasty beasties hiding in the dark of the house. Terror is a gap in our already porous consciousness through which something coldly specific may blow. To lose one's mind is ghastly enough, but what if there's someone else out there to find and keep it?

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