byMichael Malone. Little, Brown, $19.95. Mr. Malone’s novel is basically the old tale of the fellow who starts out from dreary circumstances, encounters and, with the help of a supernatural mentor, survives outrageous adventures, and ultimately finds true love and a pot of gold. On this antique foundation the author has erected an amusing, satirical, marvelously convoluted modern structure inhabited by characters of Dickensian gaudiness. Theo, the hero, is a melancholy professor at a boondocks university ambitious to raise its status. In this setting Mr. Malone has a fine time with scholarly eccentricity and departmental backstabbing. The non-supernatural mentor who maneuvers Theo out of there is a garrulous, drunken, womanizing Texas wild man who happens to be the greatest living playwright in the English-speaking theater. The adventures involve a female Elizabethan scholar who is also a ramshackle householder and a terror on the highway, a couple of elegant document forgers, a lost work by Sir Walter Raleigh, English gentry tipsily a-romp at Henley, theatrical quarrels and contretemps, and a rural vicar with a collapsing church. Mr. Malone gives full value to each of these items. All his plot actually requires, for example, is a stupid clergyman in charge of a decrepit building, but the Reverend Brakeshaw is developed, with malicious glee, into a wonder of self-assured asininity. Because the author gives similar attention to every aspect of his story, this fine and funny novel should not be read in haste. If it is, the reader will miss jokes, references, and even subtle but significant clues, which would be both a loss to the reader and an insult to the author’s wit and skill.

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