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Fortune's Favorites : FOOLSCAP, By Michael Malone (Little, Brown: $19.95; 392 pp.)

March 08, 1992|Mindi Dickstein | Dickstein is a playwright who lives in New York

"The tides of fortune wax and wane at the whim of a goddess less constant than the moon. Those who paddle furiously after them may find themselves swept out to sea one moment, washed up on shore the next; those who swim against the tides usually drown. But the agile few who can float on the waves are known as fortune's favorites," writes Michael Malone near the end of his deftly written, entertaining new novel, "Foolscap."

The reference is to a particularly lucky 16th-Century British family whose history is put to satisfyingly satirical use by the author. But it also describes the tidal way that events unfold in "Foolscap," and is a fitting introduction to Theo Ryan, the reluctant hero of Malone's eighth novel, a man who comes to learn the secret of how to be one of fortune's favorites.

Theo is the only child of professional actors. His father, Benny Ryan, is famous for having sung "Prom Queen" and "Do the Duck," two hit songs of the 1950s; his mother, stage name Lorraine Page, made her mark as television's Luster Shampoo Girl. They are the kinds of veteran actors who see the world as divided into two distinct parts: "family," or those who work in the theater, and "civilians," or those who don't.

They also are die-hard New Yorkers, the type of city dweller "for whom being robbed from time to time was one of the acceptable costs of life in the world's greatest city. Besides, the Ryans were theatre people, and for theatre people, the rest of the United States was simply a three-thousand-mile stretch of sticks."

Theo, 32 years old and in flight from his theatrical roots, is a lonely professor of dramatic literature at Cavendish University in Rome, N.C. His department is staffed by professors almost as comically absurd as the reporters in Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" or as earnestly misguided as the landowners of his "A Handful of Dust."

They hold meetings in the Dina Sue Ludd Lounge, located in Ludd Hall, both named for the department benefactress, and must bear the unfortunate moniker of Luddites. The place is a hothouse of outrage and the outrageous, where the stuffy are constantly colliding with the innovative. And then there is Theo, who is halfheartedly writing the official biography of Joshua Ford Rexford, the greatest American living playwright.

Rexford is a superb creation: the kind of crazy, boozing, womanizing, poet-genius who is his own worst enemy; a man who one minute will argue about the existence of God and the next recite Hank Williams songs. Naturally, his advice on how to write plays, some of the best too scatalogical for publication in these pages, is excellent. Among the more printable admonitions are: "It doesn't have to be real. It just has to be true." And: "The end must be in the beginning. Look for it there." Which, handily enough, can also be used to measure (and favorably) Malone's novel.

Theo's only book, "Shakespeare's Clowns: Improvisation and Textuality," is described by his ex-con uncle as being "about Shakespeare, huh? Clowns? Milking laughs, comic bits, adding on business, that type of thing?" Exactly. And the description, again, fits what Malone is up to. But Theo's is not just an academic or passing interest in dramatic literature.

A long time ago he wrote a play called "Foolscap," which a rather pompous director politely dismissed as "not ready for prime time." Now, with Rexford as his muse, Theo resurrects both the play and his life, forsaking the loneliness of the wings for the risk and confusion at center stage. Whereupon he is launched into the heart of the theater and literary worlds of New York and London, gets involved in a conspiracy to commit a fraud of gigantic proportions, and, of course, falls in love.

Beginning with the end of his peripatetic tale, then flashing backward, Malone not only proves Rexford right about endings, he also delights the reader with his witty eye for the kind of detail that proclaims with humor and confidence, "This is true!"--something he can do whether the target is an amateur production of "Guys and Dolls" (an auditioner, a very large man, performs "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" "as if he'd kill you if you didn't"), a day of scull races on the Thames among the British upper class ("The thing to notice, Ryan," Theo is told, "is that these people are totally, totally blotto, and yet not a single one has fallen on his or her face. They have tilted . . . "), or lunch with Theo's publisher at the Russian Tea Room in New York (a place that "a lot of genius African woodcarvers and great Burmese dancers never heard of").

Malone's gift for comedy is matched only by his ability to zero in on the darker underside of his characters' lives. The result is that with a few poignant but well-placed serious moments, Malone achieves a depth of character not usually found in such a comic novel. For example, some of the characters die, and when they do the reader feels the loss.

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