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Publish and Perish : A pair of murder mysteries set in the publishing world : ORIGINAL SIN By P.D. James (Alfred A. Knopf: $24; 416 pp.) : THE BOOKMAKERS: By Zev Chafets (Random House: $23; 320 pp.)

April 09, 1995|Robert Ward | Robert Ward's new novel, "The Cactus Garden" will be published by Pocket Books in September; his first novel, "Shedding Skin," will be simultaneously reissued by Washington Square Press.

As we travel dazed, anxious and weary-eyed in our air-bagged, steel-reinforced luxury cars down the blurry Information Superhighway, authors continue to do their less than fashionable job of measuring what will be lost in the new age of the megabyte and sound bite. Writers remain, thank old outdated God, exasperatingly human. They are going to have their own idiosyncratic emotions about the new age, and they are going to be stubborn and old-fashioned enough to actually write (the fools!) about all this. Some scribes are going to deal with it all head on, like the Cyberpunk gang (see William Gibson or my own favorite, Neal Stevenson), but others, like the two writers we consider here, will see the historical opportunity to write about the lost world of literature and the death of publishing as a moral force in the world . . . in the popular form of the crime novel.

Neither the English writer P.D. James nor the American Zev Chavets is being drawn gently into this particular good night. Though "Original Sin" and "The Bookmakers" couldn't be any more different stylistically, they both show writers doing what they do best: saying "No."

Perhaps not exactly "no" with thunder. The crime novel, for all its promise of mystery and dark secrets and hair-raising fright, is too cozy a form to ever really upset anybody. Neither of these writers is out to offend anyone. They are simple entertainers, looking for an audience, but even so, both of them end up dealing with the moral bilge that comes leaking like a radioactive canister from the glamworld of big-stakes publishing.

Of the two, Chavets is from the laughing-boy school. "The Bookmakers" is clever, filled with farcical Westlakian plot twists, and even features a lovable midget hit man named Afterbirth. It's that kind of book, a cross between literature, "Saturday Night Live," and a Road Runner cartoon.

The setup, however, suggests a darker strain that runs just beneath all the manic activity. Chavets' hero, Mack Green, is a washed-up novelist. Though he has scored both critically and commercially with his first two books, his next two are utter failures and, as our story begins, he's practically suicidal. One night as he staggers home, he's held up by a mugger at gunpoint; it occurs to him that he doesn't care if the kid kills him or not. The mugger too is confused by Mack's attitude and loses his leverage. Seconds later Mack has disarmed him.

As he lets the kid go, an idea is born. He'll salvage his career by writing a novel about a novelist who takes a huge advance for a novel that he'll write in one year, the last year of his life--for once he's finished the book, he'll kill himself. Mack sees his big idea as a way to score, because "everybody wonders what he'd do if he only had a year to live. And suicide books are big these days. It can't miss."

Mack tells the idea to his agent, Tommy Russo, who thinks it's swell too, and together they approach Mack's editor, Stealth Wolfowitz. Wolfowitz loves the idea, gives Mack a healthy advance, and Mack heads back to his old hometown, Oriole, Mich., to gather up the proper You Can't Go Home Again details that will give the book the desired pre-suicide poignancy.

Alas, what Mack doesn't know is that editor Wolfowitz hates his guts, and is the sole reason that Mack's last two novels failed. The editor's fury stems from the fact that long ago, when he and Mack were best friends, Wolfowitz found out that sloppy but lovable Mack was occasionally sleeping with his wife, Louise. To repay him, Wolfowitz deliberately sabotaged Mack's chances by publishing his second book at the same time John Updike's and Norman Mailer's new novels were coming out, thus assuring Mack less shelf space and third-tier reviews.

Now, Wolfowitz sees an even better chance to deliver the real death blow to Mack's career. He'll hire a hit man (the aforementioned midget) and have Mack murdered. Then he'll sell Mack's new "novel" as nonfiction--the last, broken-hearted letter to an uncaring world by a beaten and desperate author. What could be better? Wolfowitz gets his bestseller and gets to off the writer.

The rest of the novel is Mack's comic rescue. What's interesting about the book is that Mack finds strength in the world he left behind. Each of the people Mack meets or rediscovers provides him with part of the answer to his problem, and not only the problem with Wolfowitz. In the end Mack has become a complete man, having found a real community--as opposed to the totally mercantile community of the New York publishing world.

There's no use making too much of "The Bookmakers." Like Chavets' last book, the funny "Inherit The Mob," it's a bonbon of a novel, but it's a tasty one, and though I doubt that going back to the old neighborhood would work in the end (isn't the old neighborhood itself being mentally paved over by the Info Superhighway?), it is a fantasy that most of my Los Angeles contemporaries revisit about once a day.

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