Green men, the Bard, fame, odd love

Novels Of April

April 11, 1999|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

After a long winter of discontent, many readers must be yearning for a bit of comic relief. Fortunately, several authors have come to the rescue with new works that should help to ease the post-impeachment, bombing-the-Balkans blues.

At the top of the list is Christopher Buckley's novel "Little Green Men" (Random House, 301 pages, $23.95), a wonderful spoof of pompous Washington politicians, conniving bureaucrats and UFO fanatics. Buckley's unlikely hero is a television pundit who is abducted by aliens during a golf game at his country club. Although the space creatures give him a convincing probing, they are actually government agents in disguise whose mission is to stage abductions as a way of generating support for space research.

Thoroughly duped by his captors, the pundit is returned to society and takes up the UFO cause, which appalls his respectable old pals and wins him legions of dubious new friends. But his hilarious obsession with flying saucers and little green men comes to seem only slightly more ludicrous than the usual Beltway obsessions.

This book pokes gentle fun at the "Star Trek" and "X-Files" freaks; but it saves its sharpest thrusts for the political animals whose everyday antics help to make Washington the most surreal spot on the planet.

Robert Nye's "The Late Mr. Shakespeare" (Arcade, 399 pages, $25.95) is a mock biography of the Bard that gives readers "definitive" answers to all the fascinating questions surrounding his mysterious life and majestic works.

The scholarly labor of four centuries is swept aside by a lost biography of Shakespeare from the hand of one Robert Reynolds, who used to tread the boards of the Globe under the nickname Pickleherring. A former child actor who played all the great female parts in the Elizabethan plays, Reynolds looks back on a life spent in the shadows of greatness and recalls, with great wit and irreverence, the giant shadow cast by his friend Will.

Some of the "facts" in this book are as convincing as any that might be found in a real biography, which only highlights the amusing willingness of readers to suspend disbelief in assessing stories of Shakespeare's youth, marriage and romantic interests.

Pickleherring's lies seem to serve as well as the supposed truths of the poet's life and, in general, they are funnier. But not as funny as the character of Reynolds himself, who still cherishes his trunk full of women's costumes, and who occasionally comforts himself by sleeping in the nightgown of Lady Macbeth.

In "Roger Fishbite" (Random House, 187 pages, $22.95), Emily Prager manages to create a largely successful parody of Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," told from the nymphet's point of view. Prager's woman-child cannot begin to match the brilliance of Humbert Humbert's narration in the original story; but the cleverness of presenting the tale through her eyes is impressive, and the conciseness of this short book does not allow the novelty to wear thin. Like Nabokov's novel, Prager's book is both charming and sad.

Benjamin Cheever's "Famous After Death" (Crown, 256 pages, $23) is a darkly humorous account of a troubled young man whose overwhelming ambition is to be famous. Noel Hammersmith does not particularly care how he wins fame, and he is equally happy to consider a career as either a great playwright or a notorious serial killer. When his theatrical skills prove insufficient, he turns to murder and becomes a cult figure known as the Wordsworth Bomber. (In his Unabomber-like contempt for modern society, he is fond of quoting from Wordsworth's nature poems.)

Cheever's satire is rather strong at times, and will no doubt offend some sensitive readers. But, as an extended commentary on our celebrity-driven culture, his book is wickedly funny and acutely perceptive.

He shows, with devastating accuracy, how easily the culture has managed to turn every nasty outbreak of violence and terrorism into an entertainment event, complete with bloodthirsty "star" personalities and ghoulish fans. So it is not surprising to find that the Wordsworth Bomber's crusade against big business eventually wins him an interview with Barbara Walters and an NBC miniseries called "The Customer Is Always Right."

Carrie Brown's "Lamb in Love" (Algonquin Books, 348 pages, $19.95) is a gentle story about a middle-aged English postmaster who falls in love with a fortyish woman after seeing her dancing naked in the moonlight. This startling vision shakes the poor man out of his complacent acceptance of bachelorhood and makes him determined to win the heart of the magical creature who frolicked so freely in the night.

This odd little love story is pleasantly amusing, as are the wonderfully eccentric characters who people the small village where most of the action takes place.

The only problem with the book is that it is the work of a young American writer whose knowledge of English life and culture is sometimes embarrassingly deficient.

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