Picks and Pans Review: Billy

updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Whitley Strieber

Strieber is best known for Communion and Transformation, his accounts of personal contact with aliens. But he also wrote such successful thrillers as The Wolfen and The Hunger, With Billy, he returns to fiction and a most earthly horror. "The theft of a child is perhaps the crudest of all crimes." an author's note tells us. "Fortunately it is not an everyday crime; neither, however, should it be ignored." After reading this dreary novel, though, it's easy to feel that the theft of Billy Neary should have been ignored.

Strieber's plot is simple, as is his prose. At a video arcade in an Iowa mall. pale, fat Barton Royal. 44. glimpses 12-year-old Billy and vows to make the boy his. Why? He wants "a pure relationship with a child to prove the goodness that was in him.... By giving joy to a child, he could heal the wounds of his own childhood." After a 50-page stalk, the vile Barton steals into the Neary home with an ether-soaked cloth, then makes off with Billy in a van: "He was fully and completely aware that this was the most evil, most hurtful crime he could commit. But what about him? He needed somebody, too."

Barton's destination is a run-down house in Hollywood. Here the ghastly results of this dismal pervert's earlier crimes are concealed; here the new captive will surely, we suppose, meet a similar fate. Strieber's tale unfolds in movie like jump cuts, from the terrorized Billy in the van to his mom and dad consulting the police, to Barton's crazed, self-justifying musings, to the cops at work. The payoff, with the full cast assembled at Barton's Hollywood lair, is implausible, violent and gross.

For those wanting to fight child theft, Strieber ends his author's note with the address of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Here it is, for anyone wanting to send a contribution of, oh, say, $19.95 that they have saved somehow: 2101 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Va. 22201. (Putnam. $19.95)

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