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What Men Really Want : TRIAL By Clifford Irving (Summit Books: $19.95; 303 pp.) A FAINT COLD FEAR By Robert Daley (Little, Brown: $19.95; 450 pp.)

November 04, 1990|Carolyn See | See is a novelist and regular Times reviewer; her latest novel is "Making History."

Clifford Irving's "Trial" and Robert Daley's "A Faint Cold Fear" present heroes at moments of respective crises in their lives. Both these men are good men: They know what they wanted, they are all too clear about what life has denied them so far, and they know that in order to get what they want, they have to work as hard as they can for as long as it takes.

One of these books is very good. The other one is terrific. And sure, they are written to be read by what the George Bush election staff disdainfully refers to as "Joe Sixpack" guys, but limiting their audience to one sex would be a shame. Because ever since Sigmund Freud asked his question, a corollary has floated along behind it, something that some women have been too polite to ask.

Clearly and elegantly, these two books tell what it is that men really want.

First, the terrific book, Clifford Irving's "Trial." Warren Blackburn, as the novel begins, is a 29-year-old criminal defense attorney practicing in the city of Houston. Warren makes one mistake in judgment: He believes a sleazy client of his, signs his name to a paper he shouldn't, withholds one little piece of niggling information from a lady D.A.

Warren gets caught, and then is publicly humiliated by a tough-talking, man-hating female judge, who suspends him for one year from practicing law. Warren deals with these stunning body blows the best way he can. He stays home, works on his Spanish, takes up cooking, but when he does get back into the court system after that one year, criminals avoid him like chicken pox.

All this time, Warren Blackburn has been married, to an ambitious, fair-minded television anchor-woman: "He cherished his young wife for her rummaging intelligence, her drive toward womanhood." But Charmian (nicknamed Charm) may have too much honesty and focus for her own good. She's patient and loyal, up to a point . Then she tells her husband, truly and honestly, that he hasn't bounced back sufficiently after his burnout; that their sex life has gone to hell in a hand basket. And because she's beautiful and smart and begins to perceive her husband as a loser, she looks for a way out of the marriage.

Let me pause, let me digress: Don't begin this book at bedtime; you'll be up all night. Don't begin it before work; you'll be reading on the job. "Trial" is like a birchbark canoe or a seven-layer cake: You can go crazy trying to figure out how it's made, and it's made by a master.

So, too, when Warren Blackburn gets two trials in a row--one as a court-assigned case to defend a homeless Mexican man who's accused of killing a Vietnamese immigrant, and the other to act as "second chair" for an extremely successful criminal lawyer who's defending a wealthy slut who's shot down her very sleazy boyfriend in "self-defense"--you know the two trials have got to be related, but how? And even when you figure out who really killed the Vietnamese, how is Warren going to find out? And even when he does find out, how will he ensure that justice will finally be done?

Of course, the real "trial" here is Warren's own. Can he survive burnout, rejection, ridicule, the withering judgments of his wife, his own crippling self-doubt, and come back to be a man? Yes, sure!

Robert Daley's "A Faint Cold Fear" plays out a similar scenario (a sad man finds his life again) but without the depths and grace notes. All the conflict is outside , externalized, with the result that the book is fun, engrossing even, but lacks the absolutely relentless hypnotism of the Irving novel.

Daley's hero, Ray Douglas, is a New York City police officer who busts more drug dealers than anybody else on the force. The police commissioner, quite naturally, resents this competence and devotion to work. He turns all of New York's big drug cases over to the DEA, and packs Ray off to Colombia to become an "expert" on the drug cartels, where Ray is greeted by his insecure colleagues with about as much enthusiasm as if he were a cockroach in a lunch box.

In a parallel plot, a married woman reporter has been working for a paper (like the New York Times) and comes to a career dead end. Also she's married to a lox of a stock broker and sees that her life has become an existential bore. Out of this unbearable boredom she says some indiscrete things and her bosses also pack her off to Bogota.

Now, Ray has been happily married to a traditional woman for a long time, but she's dead now. He's fated to fall in love with the intrepid reporter, but she quite rightly thinks of him as a kind of Joe Sixpack. So they have a stormy relationship, while Medellin Cartel guys whiz back and forth, and that reporter--not so smart after all--gets taken in by a Cartel womanizing swine, and Ray Douglas, struggling to regain his "manhood," his position, has, among exploding car bombs and whirring helicopters, to take the time to rescue this strong-minded woman that, yes, despite his traditional ways, he has to admit he loves.

Two fine heroes. Ray Douglas really is a Joe Sixpack kind of guy, and even he wants a strong woman. But back in that other narrative, Warren Blackburn craves a woman who can laugh at herself and her gender, a woman who's utterly loyal and never startled by life's mean jokes.

God! Maybe, Clifford Irving and Robert Daley suggest, we all want the same thing. Wouldn't that be a blast?

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