by Eric Lax

If Dr. Samuel Johnson had been this dull and disengaging, Boswell never would have become famous. Or maybe if Boswell had written this badly, Dr. Johnson wouldn't be so famous.

Lax has been a contributing editor at Esquire, but for much of the last 20 years he has trailed Allen around, and this biography is his second book on the man who may be the most inspired of American movie directors.

It makes Allen seem churlish, ungrateful, condescending and much better at portraying emotion than experiencing it. Allen recalls his classmates in a playwright course as "a half dozen real losers—some fat housewife, a salesman....Nobody knew what they were doing." He calls those for whom he once wrote material, "Anonymous nightclub comics who had no personality and never would have." The people who made the movie What's New, Pussycat? were "philistines." Of his own Annie Hall, he says, "It massages the prejudices of the middle class." And Lax says Allen always considers it a "dubious sign" when one of his films is popular.

Personal revelations are few. Lax says fatherhood changed Allen but doesn't pursue the director's comment that "the kids clarify for me and vivify my worst feelings and apprehensions and perceptions about life." And sections on Allen's two wives, as well as lover Mia Farrow (whom he courted using a secretary to arrange dates), all suggest an inability on someone's part to communicate warmth.

Lax often lapses into dizzyingly clunky digressions: Allen's "penchant for philosophy might seem odd, but maybe anyone named Konigsberg [Allen's original name] is susceptible to it, because the city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea in a remote area, in the former East Prussia, annexed to the Soviet Union in 1945) was the home of Immanuel Kant, the great thinker of the Enlightenment, who taught in the university there in the last half of the 18th century."

And the writing is obsequious: "He is graceful, smart, and appreciated by women of great beauty, who sense the magnetism of his intelligence and the strength of his personality."

The problems are compounded by Lax's thin research. He interviews people with a vested interest in catering to Allen, but apparently didn't interview such people as Michael Keaton or Sam Shepard, who were fired from Allen films-in-progress. Lax's own criticisms run to "In...September, the dramaturgy does not deliver the intended impact in full."

The book's most interesting passages are technical moviemaking details—scenes in the editing of Another Woman, for instance. But this is generally a wasted opportunity.

"He was, in a word, funny," Lax writes of Allen, "and he was funny for the only reason that matters in comedy: He made people laugh." Anyone seeking more insight into Allen than that is advised to watch one of his movies. (Knopf, $24)

by Anna Quindlen

It is a very edgy, very uneasy time for dark-haired, lanky, flat-as-a-board Maggie Scanlan, the summer of '65, the summer she turns 13.

For one thing, there is a new development encroaching on open land behind the house where she lives. She shares the home with her father, Tommy, vice president of a cement company owned by his controlling father; her mother, Connie, who appears to be pregnant; and her three brothers. But the house that was comfortable and familiar now is crowded; Maggie's family seems an alien assemblage.

She feels "as if she were moving through a carnival fun house waiting for a skeleton to leap out from behind a closed door." Meanwhile, Maggie's mother, once available, is rarely home. Most devastating, omnipotent, sapient grandfather John, who regularly grills Maggie on the seven deadly sins, who pays her parochial-school tuition (for the record, Maggie gets her class's highest marks), is felled by a stroke.

First-novelist Quindlen, a syndicated columnist, has written a coming-of-age tale whose parts are stronger than its sum. Her small moments, such as Connie's sitting alone in the house looking at her wedding china, are more satisfying than the larger ones—the family gathering at the hospital after Grandfather Scanlan's stroke.

For all that, this is a satisfying work, especially in chronicling the complicated family relationships: the Irish Scanlans' disapproval of Italian Connie, the sons' struggle for autonomy, Maggie's battles with cousin Monica.

Of ritualized Sundays at the grandparents', Quindlen writes, "Maggie always ate the cherry from her grandmother's drink.... Like so many other customs in her family, it had continued long past the time that those involved enjoyed it. In fact, Maggie could not remember that she had ever enjoyed it; it had simply become tradition and could not be tampered with."

Oddly, the book's weakest part is the character of Maggie. Some situations are too predictable, such as a classic coming-of-age scene: adolescent protagonist stumbling on couple in the throes of passion.

Still, one reads Object Lessons comparing it favorably with such rite-of-passage novels as William McPherson's Testing the Current and Ella Leffland's Rumors of Peace. Quindlen is keeping very good company. (Random House, $19)

by Susan Cheever

One day, when Susan Cheever was a child, she read one of her father John Cheever's short stories and realized that it was a fictionalized account of a recent family skiing trip. In her father's story, however, the protagonist's young daughter was killed in a ski-lift accident. "The world stopped when I read the end of that story, and when it started again it wasn't quite the same," writes Ms. Cheever.

Should a writer use his family in his fiction? Ms. Cheever, author of five novels herself, can't quite decide, but readers will be engaged by her attempts to come up with an answer.

John Cheever, who died in 1982, was an alcoholic and a bisexual who, especially in his melancholic short stories, captured the simultaneous push and pull of suburban family life.

"My father needed the marriage—my mother [poet Mary Cheever] kept it together," their daughter writes here. Ms. Cheever, who also wrote a harrowing memoir about her father, Home Before Dark, in 1984, set out on a dual mission with this latest book: to write a history of her mother's family and to examine the emotional cost of her father's borrowing from his family life to write his fiction.

Mary Cheever's maternal grandfather was Thomas Watson, coinventor of the telephone. Her father was Milton Charles Winternitz, a fierce-tempered Jewish medical scholar who became dean of the Yale School of Medicine. Widowed in 1930 and with five children, he wed Pauline Webster Whitney, a Waspy society woman—MEDICAL HEAD CRASHES SOCIETY BY MARRYING SMART SET LEADER read a headline—with four children of her own. The Winternitz and Whitney children clashed miserably during their enforced closeness at Treetops, the Winternitzes' summer home in New Hampshire. "My mother and her brothers still think the Whitneys look down on them, and they still resent it," Ms. Cheever writes.

The book's final third is a moral discourse. Ms. Cheever writes that her brothers, writer-editor Ben and lawyer Federico, resent how their father portrayed his family in fiction. Mary herself tells her daughter that she sometimes didn't read her husband's stories; when she did, she didn't think about them.

But then she complains bitterly about "An Educated American Woman," a Cheever story written after Mary had embarked upon a career of her own, in which a woman leaves her sick child to attend a meeting. "He didn't I have to kill that little boy," Mary tells her daughter. She may be right, but would the story have worked as well? (Bantam, $19.95)

by James Webb

Talk about perfect timing. Here's a novel by a decorated war hero with a fictional Middle Eastern desert war at its core. It pits an American-led coalition against a potentially lethal enemy (in this case, Cuba), fighting on the shores of the Red Sea.

Three men form the springboard of the book's plot. The first, Congressman Doc Rowland, is determined to make public an illegal Japanese—Soviet Union transaction. But he is blocked by Secretary of Defense Ronald Holcomb, who will do all he can to shift attention away from the scandal.

To spice up the Holcomb-Rowland relationship, Webb factors in an affair between the Congressman and the defense secretary's wife. The third player in the game is Col. Bill Fogarty, a Vietnam vet placed in command of the marines and sailors initially sent to the Red Sea to face the Cubans.

Webb, a best-selling author (Fields of Fire) and ex-assistant secretary of defense, writes well, free of the techno-manual, Tom Clancy language that often bogs down novels like this. He understands the slice-and-dice workings of the Washington power bloc as well as the minds of battle-ready soldiers.

Webb moves his timely plot steadily, faltering only when he shifts from military and political escapades to the bland sexual goings-on between Rowland and Holcomb's wife, Janet. Other than that minor failing, however, this is a military novel that more often than not hits its intended targets dead on. (Morrow, $19.95)

by Michael Grant

This is an intense, well-paced first novel by a retired 23-year New York City police veteran.

Grant's gritty story begins simply enough, with the shooting death of Tiny Leonard, a Harlem drug dealer. On the surface, the case appears to be routine.

Then Lt. Brian Shannon, investigating the case, discovers a link between Tiny's death and two seemingly unrelated murders. Shannon's suspicion is further fueled when those murders lead him to Patrick Stone, an untouchable young cop who so far has risen like a Saturn rocket through the ranks.

It is at this point that Line of Duty veers from standard book-'em-or-bag-'em variety thriller into the gray areas of corruption, deception and moral uncertainty. The search for a killer now shares Grant's—and the reader's—attention with a question cops dread: Who among their own is not to be trusted?

Few cop novels turn out as well as Line of Duty. Fewer first novels of any kind are as entertaining. Grant, the latest invader to territory that has long been ruled by Joseph Wambaugh, makes his first literary collar an impressive one. (Doubleday, $20)

>FROM ROTTEN REJECTIONS, EDITED BY André Bernard (Penguin, paper, $5.95), a book of rejection slips: To Tony Hillerman (The Blessing Way): "If you insist on rewriting this, get rid of all that Indian stuff." To Marcel Proust (Swann's Way): "My dear fellow. I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can't see why a chap should need 30 pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep." To Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita): "It should be, and probably has been, told to a psychoanalyst. From Samuel Johnson to an anonymous author: "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good."

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Lorenzo Carcaterra.