LOOK AT IT THIS WAY by Justin Cartwright (Random House: $21; 247 pp.) Tim Curtiz gets right down to it. "I believe you can chart a nation's history," he declares, "by the shape of a nation's bottom." Whereupon the fabled London derriere becomes the foundation of this witty and scathing account of a city in decline. Tim Curtiz is Cartwright's point man, an elegant writer for a clone of the New Yorker, a self-styled "bush-league Alistair Cooke" with an ex-wife in California "studying aroma therapy." Better there than in London, "with its pinched faces and veinous noses . . . runaway arses and tallow breasts . . . shabby whores . . . its lamenting brickwork, its dribbling skies and its inexplicable smugness." So!

Blazon of the book is Chaka, a tatty, sore-footed, zoo-bound old lion standing in, one assumes, for Empire, for the old London. Chaka stands guard over his own memories "under a sky as poisonous and mottled as the skin of a toadstool," then decides to escape.

Everyone in the book--save Bernie, an indomitable Yiddisher Cockney--is connected to Chaka. Tim tracks down ancient Simba Cochrane, who long ago was famed for killing an attacking lion with a pen knife in Africa, and who now shivers in a cheap, dank upstairs flat--rheum at the top. Victoria, Tim's Brit girlfriend, studies lion painting under flamboyant historian Tresillian Lascelles. Miles Goodall, a handsome, hollow fop sweet on Victoria, loses his banking job on a fiddle and is reduced to bagman for a brutish band of kick-boxers, whose champion is dubbed the "Young Lion." And Miles? In time he meets Chaka, up close and personal. In all, an insouciant romp with barbs, with nuggets and discoveries, with great style.

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