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IN BRIEF

Fiction

January 20, 1991|Michael Harris

RUMOR HAS IT by Charles Dickinson (William Morrow: $18.95; 256 pp.) . In hundreds of city rooms across the country, in desk drawers and computer terminals, are notes, sketches and opening chapters of thousands of reporters' and editors' versions of the Newspaper Novel to End All Newspaper Novels: the real scoop, the straight dpe at last on this maddening and intriguing line of work. Guess what, guys? Charles Dickinson beat us to it.

Danny Fain is assistant metro editor of the Chicago Bugle, which is caving in to a stronger competitor, as the Herald-Examiner recently did to this paper. On Halloween morning, riding a commuter train to work, Fain sees a car hit a child in a ghost costume. Distracted by the announcement that the Bugle finally is closing, Fain postpones notifying the police. He has a vague idea of holding onto one last exclusive. And on a day of flagrant moral transgressions on all sides, it's Fain's half-unconscious sin that is singled out for punishment.

Dickinson ("Waltz in Marathon," "The Widows' Adventures") takes some standard fictional approaches to the news biz. One is to see it as a place to go on safari for ethical big game. Another is to cram more incidents into this 16-hour novel than even the most frenzied day could hold. A third is to adopt the middle-management point of view made familiar by "Lou Grant." Everyone else is satirized, if only lightly. Above Fain are corporate sharks and bean counters and twiddlers of power ties; below him are mostly drunks, mopers, goof-offs, prima donnas and head cases.

Still, "Rumor Has It" does so many things well. Above all, it's a triumph of reporting. It creates dozens of vivid and distinct characters, from cubs to millionaire columnists. It follows several news stories, from a PLO hijacking to an interview with punk musicians, through the whole process of editing and printing. It gives us a peek at the incestuous quarrel between newspapers and TV. It captures the emotions--some of them ugly--that bubble up when the ship sinks and onetime idealists scramble like rats down the hawsers after new jobs, and the paper's internal history--its legend--is jettisoned as unwanted baggage. And it tucks all this information into a story that just hums along, written in the hard, clean prose that makes assistant metro editors almost smile.

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