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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Lively Life of Ups and Lots of Downs : LOSER DEALS by Peter Viertel ; Donald Fine $21.95, 240 pages

February 28, 1995|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The epigraph for this appealing novel is the rule for Hollywood gin rummy, a variation of the game in which one player is dealt 11 cards; the other, 10. After the first hand has been played, the loser always deals.

Although Robert Masters, the engaging narrator, seems to consider himself a loser, he's far too resilient, charming and genial to deserve the label.

His self-esteem may be a degree or two below normal, but that merely lends his prose a pleasantly ironic edge. Old enough to have fought in World War II, he lives on the southern coast of Spain in his hilltop villa when he's flush; in a rented flat in town when his funds are low.

We meet him during one of cash-flow crises, when the villa is leased to a Belgian couple and he's camping out in a studio apartment. Masters had been a Hollywood actor in his heyday, successful just long enough to buy a Trancas beach house when prices were low.

After a contretemps with a powerful producer's girlfriend abruptly ended his career, the proceeds from the Trancas house properly enabled him to live reasonably well in Malaga.

The original idea was to move back once the scandal was forgotten, but the life of an expatriate suited him better than acting in B-movies had, and he stayed on.

There were two marriages, two divorces and a daughter who came for a summer visit and married a Spaniard. Masters is vague about his age, though acutely conscious of it and long since resigned to the fact that a few spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s hardly qualify him for a comeback.

He has acquired an affectionate and intelligent lover, a few golfing buddies and no real regrets.

From time to time, he becomes nostalgic, and the flashbacks to his checkered past provide some highly diverting segments for the novel. Masters was always a pleasant, well-meaning chap, though helpless when confronted by aggressive women who also happened to be beautiful.

His life hasn't been exactly misspent, merely deflected by exceedingly bad timing. Even if everything in his life had gone smoothly, by now he'd still be an aging and probably unemployed actor, though perhaps wealthier.

Kiko, Masters' son-in-law, runs a detective agency, and when he is asked by the wife of a British peer to gather evidence for a divorce action, he persuades Masters to lend a hand or, more precisely, an eye. The assignment is simple--he'll just play a round of golf behind Sir Cecil Collins and see if there are any assignations in the rough.

Instead, there's an attempted robbery, and Masters comes to Collins' rescue, suffering a knife gash in the process and endearing himself to the man he's tailing.

The ensuing complications are not only original and amusing, but offer an accurate picture of Spain's struggles with the principles of democracy, all of which are new and strange to people used to a harsher but more efficient form of government.

Matters become extremely complicated when Masters finds himself simultaneously trapped among the battling Collinses, importuned by his daughter for the funds to leave her husband, and unjustly suspected of philandering by his own darling Evelyn, who decamps in a fit of pique for Morocco.

Left on his own with only his cat for company, Masters once again finds himself emotionally vulnerable and falls deeply, if only temporarily, in love with a flamenco dancer.

A novel in which plot is a vital factor, "Loser Deals" also has a cast of highly distinctive characters, of whom Masters and Evelyn are the most sympathetic, though all the supporting players are memorable in one way or another.

A witty and sophisticated storyteller, Peter Viertel is equally at home in both Hollywood and Spain, and harbors no illusions about the denizens of either place.

"Loser Deals" is exactly the sort of delight you would expect from the man who wrote the splendid screenplay for "The African Queen."

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