THE BOYS OF WINTER By Wilfrid Sheed Knopf. 280 pp. $16.95
WRITERS CAN BE weird, editors and publishers no less so, which means that the relationship between the two can be weirdest of all. It is this relationship which Wilfrid Sheed's shrewdly seriocomic new novel examines in ways both sardonic and hopeful, reminding us that the course of anything true -- love, envy, dislike, lust -- seldom runs smooth.
The book is set in that terra least firma of the literary life, the East End of Long Island, specifically in Nether Hampton, a fictional amalgam of Sheed's own Sag Harbor and those other Hamptons venues celebrated for a disproportionately large population of writers, or people who say they are writers. I make this point because it is one that Sheed makes early and tellingly. Out this way, it often seems that it is the "writing life" and not the writing that matters; indeed, as a nonparticipant, I am frequently struck by how hard it is to "be" a writer, so hard, it often seems, that little time or energy is left for the apparently secondary business of putting words down on paper.
This fine novel, then, is not about writers writing. Nor is it, may I add, a cheap-shot roman a' clef designed to get the local crowd playing "Who's who" right through the sere and trembling months of winter. Oh, of course there are a few guessable characters. The outrageous Waldo Spinks, who really dominates things, may suggest the late James Jones to some scholars of the region. Others, editors, romance novelists and creators of Civil War battlefield fiction, can guess at themselves or rivals as the fancy pleases.
The book begins in the bleak days of winter, when the despoiling stockbrokers are all gone South and the scriveners ("year round summer people") gather in sad saloons and try to wear out the weary season. The effect is rather like a zoo closed for the winter, which settles on this part of the world like an envelope. Editor/publisher Jonathan Oglethorpe, who narrates the tale, shares in these round-table, manic-depressive sessions in which people who do the world's loneliest job try to get something out of each other. Summer comes, the sky opens, the fields spread out, and the thwock of the softball -- there is a famous artists-writers game in Sag Harbor of a ritual formality that would daunt the Vatican -- is heard in the land. A team is organized, a game, complications and rifts ensue, all related in a voice that knows this territory cold, and sees not only its possibilities for rich comedy, but grasps the monomaniacal awfulness of large, hopeful egos confronted with blank, small futures.
THEN AUTUMN, the leaves fallen, the summer crowd gone, none of the main characters where they were when Oglethorpe's story begins. What at first seemed comic has, subtly, turned savage; what seemed pond-skippingly light of tone and heart has acquired darker shadings.
I like this book a lot. I read it as an extended, lively meditation on a paraphrase of Freud's famous question: "What do writers want?" There are no pat answers, but Sheed touches on many states of mind, suggests many profitable avenues for reflection. Which is not to say that the novel is lugubrious; it certainly is not that, but neither is it a Max Shulman-type comedy about writers doing funny things. The trouble with this business is that it's the serious, sad part that's also the funniest, a paradox that Sheed has captured skillfully and with bite.
Michael M. Thomas, the author of four novels, most recently "The Ropespinner Conspiracy," lives in Bridgehampton.