A polymathic terrorist's gleaming one-liners

March 05, 1995|By Laura Lippman

"The Hippopotamus," by Stephen Fry. 292 pages. Random House. $22

There is a simple four-part test to determine if one will be amused by "The Hippopotamus," a British import from novelist-actor-columnist-scenarist Stephen Fry. (He doesn't include terrorist on his polymathic resume, but what was "Peter's Friends" if not an act of aggression against the movie-going public?)

1) Are you an Anglophile so desperate for an Evelyn Waugh-ish weekend in the country that you would endure the company of assorted twits, including a minor poet with a major weight and attitude problem?

2) Do you think scatological humor has never been given its due?

3) Do you know what A.S. Byatt said about Martin Amis' teeth?

4) Do you care?

Anyone answering yes to at least two of these questions will find a pleasant, quirky diversion within the pages of "The Hippopotamus," a title derived from T. S. Eliot and the nickname given to Mr. Fry's protagonist, Ted Wallace.

At 66, Ted is a rude sot, as he'd be the first to tell you. In fact, he is the first to tell you: "You can't expect a moron like me to tell a

story competently. It's all I can bloody do to work this foul machine . . . You asked for it, you paid me for it, you've got to sit through it. As the man said, I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn."

Well, that should take care of anyone who has mistaken the novel for a naturalist's journal. Ted quickly establishes the situation. He has just been fired from his theater critic job for shouting out his review at a first night. Now his goddaughter Jane, a young woman with more money than sense, has offered him an attractive sum to visit Swafford Hall and report back to her. It seems miracles are occurring at this stately country home, which happens to belong to Ted's old friend Michael Logan. Lord Logan also happens to be the father of Ted's other godchild, Davey, the presumed source of Swafford's miracles.

As long as Ted tells the story, the book has the arch, wicked tone one expects, and craves, in such a comedy. But Mr. Fry employs other narrators, with markedly less success. The story flounders, and comes close to collapsing. Fortunately, Ted then seizes control of both the action and tone, becoming a hero twice over. "The Hippopotamus," like a party with some dull patches, ends up a success, for its boor is never boring.

Throughout, "The Hippopotamus" gleams with wit, tossing off one-liners that one longs to shout aloud. An old friend greets Ted: "I've never understood much of your work, but then of course one isn't supposed to, is one?" And one of Ted's most famous poems is called "Lines on the Face of W. H. Auden."

Mr. Fry, for that alone, I forgive you all of "Peter's Friends."

Laura Lippman is a features reporter at The Sun and writes frequently about publishing. She has a journalism degree from Northwestern University, where she also studied English and American literature. She has studied creative writing with the poet Sandra Cisneros.

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