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Book Review

Story of Retail Madness Hasn't Got the Goods

FAMOUS AFTER DEATH; by Benjamin Cheever; Crown; $23, 224 pages

April 12, 1999|MICHAEL FRANK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Noel Hammersmith, the protagonist and part-time narrator of "Famous After Death," is a man with prodigious and generally understandable grievances. An editor at Acropolis, a small New York publishing house, he is against the commercialization of his industry. He condemns America's obsession with the mercantile, agreeing with his hero, William Wordsworth, that "getting and spending we lay waste our powers." He decries the shoddiness of the goods that such getting gets: "Products are the language of our times," he contends. "They're how we tell each other that we care and obviously we don't."

Hammersmith's complaints seem a logical enough response to the empty extravagances of mid-'80s Reagan America, the time and place in which he lives. Yet, as Barbara Walters asks him, is quality control really an issue worth killing for?

This question helps set the narrative proceedings in motion by beginning at the end. Walters is interviewing Hammersmith in prison, where he has been incarcerated after having been identified as the Wordsworth Bomber, a man whose gripes against excessive commercialism have apparently motivated him to set bombs that have killed 34 innocent people. Echoes of Theodore Kaczynski seem obvious but are not particularly germane. Benjamin Cheever's tone is meant to be darkly comic; his sociopath is more self-pitying buffoon than cold-hearted killer.

The novel then circles back to show the reader how Hammersmith became the man he purports to be. Cheever alternates voices (and typefaces), switching among an omniscient editorial narrator; Hammersmith's first-person journal accounts; letters from Hammersmith to his best friend, his sister and the manufacturers of the products whose imperfections inflame him so; and transcriptions from what the editors call corroboratory sources.

Through all these refractions a portrait of the 35-year-old editor takes shape. The son of a minister and a housewife who were themselves killed (in Israel) by a terrorist bomb, Hammersmith lives by himself in suburban Bedford, N.Y. He is overweight, acne-scarred and forgetful. At work, he specializes in diet books; in his spare time, he jogs with his friends, struggles with his weight and mopes. In his own words a "functioning melancholiac," Hammersmith lays out these life goals for his psychiatrist: to be thin, tall, beloved of beautiful women and famous. "I want to be a sort of modern Buddha, sit somewhere quiet and read my clips," Hammersmith confides. "I want somebody to tell my story."

Well, somebody does--and a dreary, tedious and self-absorbed story it is. Hammersmith is trapped in Cheever's parodic conceit: Fame is so extravagantly and absurdly desired in our country and culture that a man will kill--for reasons no more profound than the discontinuation of a certain color of a Brooks Brothers shirt--in order to acquire it. The idea is as thin as Hammersmith yearns for his body to be.

The ancillary characters are similarly malnourished. Hammersmith and his running friends engage in dreary locker-room talk, with a few substantial clues tossed in along the way to facilitate the eventual twists in the plot. Hammersmith's best friend and sister, who emerge mostly in his letters to them, remain passive and blank.

Hammersmith himself becomes minimally more rounded--and interesting--when he begins going out with Wilson Peters, who is pregnant by a former companion. When her son, Bart, is born, Hammersmith takes to his surrogate parenting duties with a readiness and a generosity that humanize and briefly complicate his otherwise one-dimensional nature. But only briefly. Soon enough Wilson and Bart disappear from the story, and Hammersmith resumes his haranguing letters to the manufacturers of pocket knives, baby food and diet pills. The plot, such as it is, creaks toward its obvious and unrewarding conclusion.

"Famous After Death" has the arbitrary feeling of a novel worked up with some effort out of a well-intentioned, momentarily amusing, but ultimately insubstantial idea. In a representative complaint to his journal, Hammersmith moans, "Houses are made of sheetrock and sticks instead of plaster and stone. Chairs and toilets are uncomfortable. Everything breaks." These things break because they are not carefully made, nor, regrettably, is Cheever's book.

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