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The Boys of Winter by Wilfrid Sheed (Knopf: $16.95; 273 pp.)

July 19, 1987|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is The Times Opinion editor.

Anyone unfortunate enough to earn or learn a living in the book business will relish the back-biting behind the back-slapping in this artful novel about the wiles of writers, editors, publishers and hangers-on. Every character, as a matter of fiction, is a hanger-on here, trying to survive over somebody else's live body.

Anyone affluent enough to experience an enclave existence will recognize the incestuous absurdity of what happens in the Hamptons where Jimmy's bar functions as a cathedral plaza, with residents assigned their squatting places on the basis of being year-rounders, summer-dwellers or mere weekenders. Similar foolishness--involving in-groups within in-groups--occurs in Laguna, Key West and Carmel.

Many normal people may also enjoy the way Wilfrid Sheed puts his needle to puncturing accepted public wit or attributed private wisdom at the same time: "The line on bartenders is pretty d1769169775idea about writing altogether. For one thing, they assume their readers are drunk. They picture a circle of eager, merry fellows, ever ready for a good roar, instead of the pinched-up people in apartments, worried sick about their regularity, who comprise the actual reading public."

A real writer is at work here, one with a keen sense of selves--self-worshiping and self-deprecating. He knows how writers band together against the alleged greed and stupidity of publishers and editors. He knows how those same writers also feel superior, each to each, even while banded together. And he knows how the other side feeds, parasitically, off the writers' work: "Luckily," says narrator and publisher Jonathan Oglethorpe, "I have my own little ego to keep me warm. I also believe that I am better than all of them, only with the good taste not to put it in writing."

But Oglethorpe is putting it in writing. While he tends to four odd authors in the Hamptons, he is also writing a novel about odd authors in the Hamptons. And one of those four tended authors--the once-celebrated, now-slipping Waldo Spinks--is also writing a novel about the same people in the same place. This is at first a funny comedy of manners, most of them bad manners, as the real novelist, Sheed, reels around inside two fictional novelists and also publishes a previously unpublished early short story by Oglethorpe. Later, alas, comedy becomes a kind of confusion as the reader must remember to separate Sheed from his creations and the creations from each other. By the end, Sheed has further complicated this business by having Oglethorpe confess that his novel and Spinks' novel blurred into one.

There is enough plot and plotting among the characters to make a serious novel of Russian proportion. But that is not enough for Sheed. He invents a subplot about softball to engage the Hampton crowd and give them a chance to compete with a team from Hollywood as well as from other Long Island hamlets. The team grows out of a "hot stove league" conversation, concocted during the winter when there is nothing to do but drink at Jimmy's and look for things to talk about besides which writer is lusting after which other writer's wife. Baseball is usually good for a few laughs in fiction, being, like barroom boasting, a sport of so much potential and so little scoring. "The Boys of Winter," however, play a pretty dull game; they are singularly inept while their ensemble is rarely amusing. When Spinks almost kills a Hollywood producer, in fury over another rejection notice, the seams of artifice are showing.

But when Sheed sticks to the game of letters, his calls are much closer. Meet Billy van Dyne, the all-American literary loser with talent: "I published his first novel, 'The Little House on Death Street,' with real excitement . . . and the book demonstrated not only a quality of profound and unanswerable unsalability, but a rarer gift more akin to invisibility. Some good writers have this strange knack. They produce good book after book for publisher after publisher and nobody sees them." Recognize the way Spinks defines his own decline: "First your reviews get more condescending and the reviewers more unknown and incompetent. Then the publishers start passing you down the line till you wind up at Outhouse Press. . . . And the next thing you know, the younger generation has never heard of you--well, they've never heard of anybody, but try telling that to a drowning author. All he's thinking about is dragging somebody else down with him."

The boys--and girls--are at their best in the bar, sneering at the locals, savaging each other and trying to make love in the clutch. Novelist, essayist, memoirist Sheed even manages to make his narrator grow up as the seasons change. The talk is consistently sure and swift because Sheed, though he may play uncertainly by construction, plays beautifully by ear.

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