Picks and Pans Review: The Belles Lettres Papers

updated 06/15/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/15/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Charles Simmons

Sometimes it's great fun to have a vicious little satire to read, even when you don't know much about the institutions or people that are being mocked. This novel's locale is a New York literary magazine. The story is told by a young staff member who is clever enough to get along with practically anyone, even when the magazine's dependable, solid editor is replaced by a thug who is brought in to clean house. Those who work for a large company will enjoy, or perhaps find grim satisfaction in, the shameless—even shocking—plays for power that go on even in this branch of the ivory tower. Simmons, the author of An Old-Fashioned Darling and Wrinkles, was for many years an assistant editor of The New York Times Book Review, so looking for roman à clef clues is irresistible. Those who have read Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings, for instance, may be amused by one of the staff members describing that novel: "The Old Testament written by Mel Brooks, the Book of the Dead by Henry Miller, the Iliad by Woody Allen, the head of Nefertiti by Red Grooms...." The staff finds the new man an easy target for pranks too, and at his first meeting they assign "a chocolate cookbook to John Hershey, a book of literary criticism to Calvin Trilling, a book on entomology to Gregor Samsa, and a feminist novel to Doris Grumble." The bad guy's downfall is brought about by a hoax inspired perhaps by a scholar's discovery of a "new" Shakespeare poem in 1985. Simmons obviously knows the New York literary scene in all its squalor, and the sheer delight he had in writing this book is infectious. (Morrow, $12.95)

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