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Portrait of the Artist as an Old Hound : THE COVER ARTIST, <i> By Paul Micou (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 286 pp.)</i>

<i> Danziger is the author of "Rising Like the Tucson" (Doubleday). He is an editorial cartoonist for the Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times Syndicate</i>

Fantasy and humor are combined in cartooning as they are in few other art forms. It is an easy thing to do. In prose, the combination is a little more difficult. We won’t waste time here with Advanced Cartoon Theory, but it has to do with the audience’s willingness to suspend belief, something they do much more eagerly for a cartoon than for a novel.

The main character of Paul Micou’s novel, “The Cover Artist,” is a cartoonist and caricaturist. The cartoonist’s dog, Elizabeth, is a painter of some talent. I will readily join in the fantasy that a Labrador can paint, but whether or not it’s funny readers must decide for themselves. Elizabeth is, the novel informs us blithely, a Canine Expressionist.

Oscar Lemoine, the cartoonist, is a vapid sort, naive and much less talented than his dog. Most people are. Oscar produces covers for an irreverent but fundamentally stupid arts magazine in New York. His cover subjects are cruelly portrayed in the nude, with grotesquely exaggerated genitalia, and the shock and humorous value of these covers is a main sales feature of the magazine. This odd exaggeration is supposed to be smart commentary on the subjects’ ambition for attention, showing celebrities in entertainment and political circles weighed down by their distended egos.

The narrative in Chapter 1 joins Oscar and Elizabeth returning to the squalor of New York from a vacation in France. Chapter 2 begins the narrative of what happened during that vacation, and from then on the chapters alternate for most of the book with mechanical regularity, between Oscar in New York and Oscar on his previous vacation.

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In New York, Oscar is attacked by a glamorous TV anchorwoman whose bosom he has exaggerated in one of his covers. She shows up, in a state of advanced pique, and announces that he has scarred her mentally since she is a mastectomy victim. This revelation hurts Oscar deeply, and he engineers his own firing from the magazine.

Elizabeth is growing old, and Oscar decides that she should spend her last days in the French resort. Fortunately, her paintings are commanding increasingly high prices. Back in France, she expires, but not before putting her paw print on a stack of canvases which Oscar can fill in later.

And that’s the way things are in the art world these days. Adults waste their talents on jealous grotesqueries of their more famous contemporaries while man’s best friend, superior in love and loyalty, is left to follow in the footsteps of the masters.

This is Micou’s second book, following “The Music Programme,” which was genially reviewed and also was an uneasy combination of fantasy and humor set in Africa. His style was and still is an extremely open one, the kind designed to read painlessly (perchance by passing film producers). The simple sentences follow each other in a bouncy sort of way. The effect is wide-eyed innocence played against the decline and debauchery being described.

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The first time I can recall seeing this done was in “Candy,” Terry Southern’s seminal whatever-it-was. As in that work, if a morally or artistically debased society is described in childlike prose, the author seems stylishly unconcerned in passing judgment. More is left up to you, the reader. Depending on your degree of sophistication, you can be shocked, bored or amused.

Cartoonists frequently work this way. Perhaps Micou would make a good cartoonist. Deeply buried in us is the desire to ridicule, an unlovely impetus especially in the young. The smart alecs who drew on the walls in junior high grew up to draw in magazines like Oscar’s employer. Or write books like this one. Micou is after the art scene and the smart magazine scene, and he gets them pretty handily.

But ridicule needs tempering, and I’m happy to say that Micou knows this. Here the tempering is done by the character of the dog Elizabeth, quite talented and necessarily an autodidact like her master. Compared, as she constantly is, to the shallow human characters around her, Elizabeth paints for the love of it. (Dogs are, after all, the ultimate philosophers; they love what they know.) She doesn’t do it for money, and she is untroubled by competition. The scene of her death is very sad:

“Oscar spoke soothingly to Elizabeth, his voice muffled by her black coat. He told her what a good dog she was, what a good friend, what a good painter. . . . She closed her mouth but still a tip of pink tongue protruded, like a rose petal.”

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Like cartooning, this kind of writing is a bit derivative. Micou owes Waugh and Wodehouse, and some to Martin Amis. He still lacks the sharpness that will come with practice. Sketched in the fluffy characters--the painting dog, the artsy-crazy magazine editors, is a line of social criticism, but I found it a little nebulous, and slightly too long.

But in fairness it must be admitted that what he’s trying is not easily accomplished; the elements are so perishable that a very light touch is required. Micou is getting better.

The desired result, as book or artwork, is a well-spiced confection, bitter but intentionally insubstantial, labored over to make it look easy. What look like quick flicks of the phrase are no more accidental than those of brush and ink--the most telling points must be made as if they didn’t matter.

As any practitioner of either art will aver, the goal is to arrange the least ink so it will do the most harm.

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