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IN BRIEF

Fiction

June 23, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS

KRAVEN IMAGES by Alan Isler (Bridge Works: $21.95; 264 pp.). Alan Isler's first novel, "The Prince of West End Avenue," was hailed for its blend of drama and comedy. His second, "Kraven Images," keeps the two separate. The bulk of the story is played strictly, if skillfully, for laughs. Only at the beginning--when the hero, Nicholas Kraven, recalls his childhood among Jewish refugees in England during World War II--and at the end, when Kraven returns to England to unearth the reasons for his father's death, does Isler show his full dramatic powers.

In the 1970s, Kraven is teaching English literature at Mosholu College in the Bronx. His life is inauthentic, to say the least. He has affairs with a married woman and several students. His teaching--wasted, he thinks, on bimbos and campus radicals--is perfunctory. In fact, Kraven is an impostor. His degree was awarded to his late, evil cousin Marko--though Kraven did most of the work to earn it. He has so thoroughly adopted his cousin's outlook that it takes a major shake-up to bring him back to himself. This is accomplished in a flurry of bedroom farce and departmental politics. His lover grows possessive, students kiss and tell, an English don who knew Marko is bound for Mosholu, and an elderly student's crackpot theory--that the Arthurian wizard Merlin was not only a historical figure but a Jew--lands Kraven in a plagiarism scandal.

Much of this is fun; Isler has a gift for dialects, and he satirizes academia almost as deftly as David Lodge ("Small World"). But there are problems: We can't quite see why Kraven, in order to use Marko's credentials, has to adopt his personality as well, and it's also unclear what Kraven's adult problems have to do with his childhood trauma. The pieces of "Kraven Images" remain pieces, rather than parts of a whole.

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