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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Caustic Bit of Writing, Old Chap : THE HIPPOPOTAMUS <i> by Stephen Fry</i> ; Random House $21, 290 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Isay, Jeeves! The chap who wrote this new novel you’re reading--he couldn’t be that actor fellow, could he? The same Stephen Fry who played you in ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ on ‘Masterpiece Theatre’? Did jolly well at it, too, I must say. Though that Hugh Laurie made me look like a twit.”

“Quite so, sir.”

“But I can’t help wondering why a chap who excels in one field should feel compelled to sprawl out into another one. Better he minds his own wicket, don’t you think, Jeeves? I do hope Mr. Fry hasn’t committed one of those dreadful Hollywood kiss-and-tell things.”

“Indeed not, sir. Mr. Fry is an author of some renown, in addition to his accomplishments on stage and screen. His first novel, ‘The Liar,’ was a runaway best-seller, I believe the phrase is, and ‘The Hippopotamus’ seems destined to follow it.”

“My word! An animal story?”

“No, sir. Only the human animal, prone as ever to folly and self-deception. Though, come to think of it, there is a horse here . . . a horse with commendable taste in Scotch . . . who rebuts the philosophy of Peter Shaffer’s play ‘Equus.’ You must recall how Shaffer mythologized the youth who blinded horses and condescended to the ordinary chap who tried to cure him.”

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“Philosophy? Surely, Jeeves, a best-seller can’t rely on that , can it? Not without a little romance along the way, what?”

“Never fear, sir. Mr. Fry may be fearsomely learned and famously celibate, but on the printed page he can be as dirty-minded as any Hollywood person--and a great deal wittier.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Alas, sir. Best-sellerdom has changed since our creator P. G. Wodehouse’s day. Sex is in, I fear, for good. Romance is sold strictly to the ladies, like a feminine hygiene product. Not that Mr. Wodehouse wasted much time with either.”

“I’m totally confused, Jeeves. Where does this . . . this hippopotamus come in?”

“The narrator, sir. It’s his nickname. Ted Wallace. A once-promising poet and sacked drama critic, now 66 years old and pickled with whiskey, still scratching his libido and various other itches, but slowly sinking into bitterness. His voice is what makes the thing go.”

“How?”

“Because it’s such a deliciously caustic and debunking voice--sort of a warlock’s brew of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, with a pinch of Malcolm Muggeridge thrown in. For all Mr. Wallace’s spleen, he’s a fresh breeze dispelling the sickly vapors of New Age claptrap that have gathered in just such a grand country house as Mr. Wodehouse used to allow us to visit.”

“See here, Jeeves. New Age? In a country house? It can’t be.”

“Why not, sir?”

“Because this is . . . dash it all, this is England.

“The yearning for miracles is universal, sir. Especially when one is a 15-year-old boy long on poetic fantasy but short on talent, or when one is a practical person with a squishy and sentimental core--which most practical people have. The boy is believed to have cured a strangling baby, a young woman with leukemia, a gay litterateur with angina and the horse. More would-be beneficiaries of his magic are arriving every day.”

“And the boy himself?”

“Oh, he believes it too, caught up in such hysteria. And the others are most put out with Mr. Wallace when he fails to abandon his skepticism.”

“Extraordinary, Jeeves. You’d think a poet would be the first to believe in miracles.”

“But a poet knows something that a practical person doesn’t: where poetry comes from. It comes from words, not ideas; it comes, as Mr. Wallace says, from mucking about down in the mine for ore rather than waiting for gold to rain on us from heaven.”

“Still, it seems a bit . . . heavy, somehow. Too much like an idea . . .”

“Yes, sir. Mr. Fry falls into the same snare he so eloquently points out to others. In the drawing-room scene at the end, Mr. Wallace is roused from his funk and made to impersonate Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Poirot, unraveling the mystery. A bit much, I think. The story loses its life whenever we stop hearing it through the old reprobate’s voice. In bare summary it becomes almost grotesque. Words, indeed, are what count--but how entertaining most of Mr. Fry’s are!”


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