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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | BIOGRAPHY

REWRITES By Neil Simon; Simon & Schuster: 397 pp., $25

December 29, 1996|STEVE ALLEN

Not only do I tell you, at the outset, that I hugely enjoyed reading Neil Simon's memoir, I hereby state my willingness to do physical battle with any other reviewer who displays the effrontery to differ with my opinion. There very probably will be nonesuch, of course. If they do emerge, they will have nothing to fear from Simon, since his good fortune as the most successful playwright since Shakespeare presumably renders him immune from their paltry slings and arrows.

Not since Moss Hart's "Act One" have I read a book about the theater--and particularly that branch of the art that markets funniness--that amused me so much as does Simon's witty accounts of his adventures on Broadway. What we might not have expected is the extent to which Simon writes not about success, of which he has had enough to satisfy 20 men, but failure. It is astonishing to read of instance after instance of professional doubt, inadequate text tossed overboard, plain bum guesses and bad reviews. Simon's narrative is a treasure house of fascinating stories about his working relationships with Jerry Lewis, Bert Lahr, Walter Matthau and Mike Nichols.

The autobiographies of many overachievers are probably of interest only to readers who already share a fascination with the field in which the protagonists have operated. But everyone loves to laugh. "Rewrites," consequently, is a book for the masses.

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