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For Fame and Honey : THE BEAR WENT OVER THE MOUNTAIN. By William Kotzwinkle (Doubleday: $22.50, 306 pp.)

November 10, 1996|Woody Hochswender | Woody Hochswender is a senior editor at Esquire

William Kotzwinkle is an entertaining fabulist with a beautifully dark comic touch. He has written about 20 books, including "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial," "Christmas at Fontaine's" and the hip classic "The Fan Man," with its immortal, bedraggled '60s hero, Horse Badorties, who says "man" every third word.

His latest, "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," is inspired by a real incident in which the author's novelist wife, Elizabeth Gundy, had a manuscript swiped by a hungry bear (it was later recovered, uneaten). In Kotzwinkle's hands, the tale becomes a wild and woolly satire of the book business that appeals to the primal self in all of us.

The story concerns a Maine bear that has stumbled upon the manuscript of a romantic novel in a briefcase hidden under a tree. It was written by Arthur Bramhall, a reclusive American literature professor from the University of Maine whose previous book was destroyed in a fire and who figured it was safer to store his precious pages outdoors.

The bear reads a few pages and decides, "This book has everything," including "lots of sex and a good bit of fishing." He pinches the manuscript and makes his way to New York, where he quickly acquires what every human needs, an agent and a publicist. The stolen novel, "Destiny and Desire" (it sounds a bit like "The Bridges of Madison County"), becomes a bestseller.

The bear is promptly lionized, or shall we say, humanized, by a hero-hungry, celebrity-driven media. Everyone--especially effete New York literati--is bowled over by his formidably instinctive response to life. And no one seems to notice that he is, um, a bear; people just think he is a bit of a country bumpkin. Soon he is having strange laconic editorial meetings with his patrician gay editor and glorious "rutting" sessions with a slinky Hollywood agent who hasn't eaten butter in a decade.

Our celebrity's meteoric rise is paralleled by the real author's increasing alienation and withdrawal from society. As the bear, who takes the name Hal Jam (after one of his favorite human foods), becomes more celebrated and civilized, poor Bramhall retreats deeper into the Maine woods, eventually hibernating in a frosty cave, which is, presumably, Hal Jam's former abode.

I, for one, am a little bit thrown by all this bearness. The book is compared on its jacket to "Being There" and "Forrest Gump," and certainly the plain-spoken bear is prone to the same ersatz one-liners as the characters in those stories. But I think of the novel more as cross between Kafka's "Metamorphosis" and "Scooby-Doo Where Are You?" the Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Sometimes you just want to shout: Why don't these so-called sophisticates realize they're dealing with a bloody bear!

Like Gregor Samsa, the main character of Kafka's tale, readers may find that this prolonged joke wears thin. Still, Kotzwinkle is good at assuming an animal's point of view, whether it be the ever-hungry bear, a dog daydreaming of wieners or a sexed-up Hollywood agent with a predatory streak.

Inevitably, Bramhall emerges from hibernation to reclaim his literary property. But he has grown a bearlike pelt and smells to high heaven. "His feet felt horribly cramped in the shoes he wore; he longed to walk barefoot over the pine-needled floor of a forest lit by the soft moon of dreams."

Meanwhile, the bear has taken to cruising around in limousines stocked with jars of tupelo honey. But he suspects that he has given up his woodsy paradise for "fame and honey."

Kotzwinkle's sense of humor has always tended to have long hair and a beard. In "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," he offers us perhaps his hairiest creation yet.

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