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BOOK REVIEW : Novel Captures the Spirit of Wodehouse : PUTTING ON THE RITZ; A Novel, <i> by Joe Keenan</i> , Viking, $19.95; 313 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Any college student who dares argue that P.G. Wodehouse is a better writer than Ernest Hemingway would undoubtedly be given a swift boot through the English Department door, with the hope (to use a common Wodehouse expression) that he or she lands on something sharp.

The idea doesn’t seem nearly so far-fetched, however, if you look at the sort of writing the two authors have inspired, for it quickly becomes clear that Wodehouse, unlike Hemingway, is virtually inimitable.

Today, “bad Hemingway” is a cliche, the subject of recently defunct annual parody contest and sometimes indistinguishable from the real thing; “bad Wodehouse,” by contrast, hardly exists, for writing in the Wodehouse vein demands perfect pitch, any lapse in tone dooming it to failure.

Wodehouse specialized in writing about patent nonsense, but patent nonsense, it turns out, is rather more difficult to pull off than descriptions of hunting, fishing and bullfighting.

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Enter, with a flourish, Joe Keenan, who in his second novel has done Wodehouse proud. Keenan shares some of the master’s language mannerisms--friends are “chums,” people “flee” instead of leave, “goggle” rather than blanche or gape--but the effect of “Putting on the Ritz” is unquestionably Keenan’s own.

Deliciously mean-spirited at times but never sentimental, the novel is a send-up of New York City’s insular high society as seen through the eyes of Philip Cavanaugh, a young, gay and somewhat successful off-Broadway lyricist. Being a young, gay and somewhat successful New York-based musical comedy writer himself, Keenan knows whereof he speaks.

Like Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, Philip is essentially a pawn, dragooned into adventure by a fast-talking friend--Gilbert Selwyn, who also starred with Philip in Keenan’s first novel, “Blue Heaven.”

Gilbert has fibbed his way into a job assisting powerful magazine editor Tommy Parker, and his principal task is to recruit Philip to write an act for Elsa Champion, the torch singer-wannabe wife of billionaire developer-turned-publisher Peter Champion (who bears a certain resemblance to Donald Trump).

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Philip, knowing Gilbert’s scheming mind, is suspicious, and rightly so; he presently learns that he has been recruited not so much to write songs as to gather inside dirt on the Champion household for an article being written by Tommy Parker, whose own boss, Boyd Larkin, is another billionaire publisher and Champion’s arch-enemy.

Philip, appalled at the proposed nefarious doings, is about to grab his hat, metaphorically, when Tommy appears on the scene. Philip all but swoons, for like Gilbert before him, he becomes instantly infatuated; Tommy is irresistible and looks, in Philip’s words, “something like what might have resulted had Leslie Howard given birth to Gary Cooper’s child.”

Soon Philip and his collaborator, Claire, are ensconced in the Champion home and surrounded by fawning underlings, pushy gossip columnists and a manipulative Continental voice coach (not to mention garish, nouveau riche decor). Now, boasts Philip, “while my friends could only loathe the Champions from a distance, I got to dislike them personally!”

Hidden microphones, burgled yachts, mixed up tapes, unexpected trysts and philandering of many kinds; the plot gets thick but never heavy, even when Keenan flees--sorry, leaves--the inside world of theater and society for those of magazines and television.

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The novel culminates in a Geraldo Rivera-like talk show during which the bad guys are revealed and receive their just desserts--marriage, for some--thanks to long-suffering Claire, who makes a habit of saving Philip’s bacon from the fire.

All kinds of things make “Putting on the Ritz” better than the average farce: the writing, which is witty and inventive (when Gilbert, disguised as a French waiter, is pressed into service as a translator, he speaks “desperanto”); the plotting, which is carefully worked out and totally implausible in the accepted Wodehouse-Coward-Cole Porter way; the tone, which is unfailingly light, as if the ‘20s were still with us.

Best of all, however, are Keenan’s vivid characters, particularly Philip and Gilbert, whose old romance makes their ongoing search for Mr. Right--or perhaps Mr. Right Now, it’s a little hard to tell--all the more poignant. May they get into much more trouble in the years to come.

Next: Carolyn See reviews “Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell” (Bantam).

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