THE CURIOUS CASE OF SIDD FINCH by George Plimpton (Macmillan: $16.95; 192 pp.).

Harvard dropout Siddhartha Finch is an aspiring Buddhist monk who spouts Zen koans ("Even a good thing isn't as good as nothing"), can mimic virtually any sound in the universe (a bathtub draining, a refrigerator door closing, a monastery bell), plays a masterful French horn, and can, with unerring precision and consistency, throw a baseball 168 miles per hour--or about 75 miles-per-hour faster than can any other mortal. When New York Mets general manager Frank Cashen offers him a contract, Finch cryptically responds, "A pair of monkeys are reaching for the moon in the water." Cashen later complains: "He sounded like an agent."

George Plimpton conceived Finch as an April Fool's hoax in the April 1, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated. In this wonderfully wry and whimsical debut novel he deftly manages to reveal more of his flame-throwing prodigy without demystifying him, and he delivers what readers hungered for but were denied in the magazine piece: Finch throwing his aspirin-blur fastball in a major league game.

Finch is more at home in the Himalayas than on a baseball diamond. He thinks the iron doughnut on-deck hitters use to weight the bat is a talisman to bless the wood. "Is it absolutely mandatory that I go up to bat?" he asks Mets manager Davey Johnson. "I would as soon eschew it." Johnson shifts the tobacco wad in his mouth. "Well, you can't eschew it," he says. "You got no choice."

Like Finch's pitches, this story goes by too fast. But even a short thing is better than nothing if it's a good thing.

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