Title: "Thirteen Uncollected Stories by John...

BOOK BRIEFS

March 20, 1994|By BARBARA SAMSON MILLS Title: "A Very Private Plot" Author: William F. Buckley Jr. Publisher: Morrow Length, price: 269 pages, $20 | BARBARA SAMSON MILLS Title: "A Very Private Plot" Author: William F. Buckley Jr. Publisher: Morrow Length, price: 269 pages, $20,LOS ANGELES TIMES Title: "Adventures of a Young Verbivore" Author: Richard Lederer Publisher: Pocket Books Length, price: 277 pages, $21

Title: "Thirteen Uncollected Stories by John Cheever"

Editor: Franklin H. Dennis

Publisher: Academy Chicago Publishers

Length, price: 227 pages, $19.95 This is not the martinis-on-the-veranda, yacht-club-and-family-gatherings Cheever of the collected stories. This is the Cheever who, in real life, was paralyzed by his fear of bridges, the Cheever who would dutifully put on a suit and hat each morning and travel down in the elevator of his New York apartment building to the storage bin in the basement that he used as his "office."

The stage for these stories is the Depression, middle America, joblessness and risking all 50 of the dollars in your pocket at the racetrack. But his characters are bathed in that same unearthly, sourceless light as the poor slobs on the verandas. The things we depend on, like family, institutions, banks and governments, usually betray Cheever's characters, regardless of the shields they erect -- money, marriage, society -- against this fate.

So these stories, written in the 1930s and 1940s when Cheever was in his 20s and 30s, have many of the same qualities as the later stories. It's just that the heroes are aging salesmen and aging dancers, waitresses and strippers. Stylistically, however, Cheever was still in master Hemingway's thrall, which may have distracted him from his true lusciousness in more ways than one. (This is the famously litigated collection from which the Cheever family eventually managed to have a number of stories held out.) If you find confusing the correct use of "lie" and "lay," or "I" and "me," "verbivore" Richard Lederer has all the answers. He delves into the history and use of English language with humor and narrative, and makes even dreaded fun.

"This book chronicles my heels over head love affair with the English language," he writes, and in his loving analysis he validates slang ("nearly as old as language itself"), black English ("a major dialect with a long and rich history that began in Africa") and the "mass media tower of babble," which is becoming a primary source of English words and expressions ("cowabunga," from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and "the real thing," from Coca-Cola).

Mr. Lederer peppers his book with quizzes, awful puns and passages about the "glamor of grammar"-- "grammar" once meant magic or enchantment. There's also a list of necessary books, or "tools of the trade," for the speaker or writer of English. This should be required reading for all students of English 101, and language lovers in general. After decades of clandestine CIA operations, Blackford Oates has taken his retirement. The last thing he expected to wind up as was the focus of a Senate investigation over a decade-old incident, which involved a 1985 CIA plan to assassinate Mikhail Gorbachev. But at the last moment, President Reagan decided that Gorbachev was a God-fearing Christian and pulled the plug on the plot. Now the details are seeping out, and Oakes is subpoenaed by a publicity-seeking U.S. senator to reveal embarrassing secrets or face jail.

"A Very Private Plot" is the 10th Blackford Oates novel by William F. Buckley Jr., the columnist and talk-show host. It is singularly disappointing. Since the assassination was never attempted, there is a lack of tension. The novel must rely on strong characters to engage the reader, but the characters are flat.

Also, Mr. Buckley's constant name-dropping is more precious than informative. He is reduced to snide comments about the Washington liberal establishment, something done on a regular basis elsewhere. It's interesting that the publisher refers to "Plot" as a novel rather than a thriller, but more thrillers and less political prattle might have been able to save this work.

BOB BAYLUS

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