Family Pictures

THE RELATIVES of a novelist often worry that they will be fictionalized, or at least that their friends will suspect that unsavory or eccentric characters are indeed based on them. One suspects, for instance, that Philip Roth's mother wished to distance herself from the obsessive and half-baked Mrs. Portnoy.

Nicholson Baker's mother, on the other hand, encourages him to get more autobiographical. She wishes he would write about, say, the bad things in his childhood -- the parental fights over money, bill-collectors coming to the door, and the battles about the origin of the mess.

Oh, she knows it's admirable and kind of him to restrain himself, but she feels it severely limits his range. Baker, she thinks, should try to do more as John Updike does -- tell the tale and don't worry about any potential breaches. "Dad and Rache {his sister Rachel} and I will be very brave," she tells him.

In his new book, due out early next spring, Baker takes his mother's advice. Sort of. The young author of The Mezzanine and Room Temperature -- highly praised micro-portraits of, respectively, isolated corporate and domestic moments -- has written U. and I: A True Story, a study of John Updike.

It's not literary criticism and only glancingly autobiographical. Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot and Frederick Exley's Pages From a Cold Island have worked some of this vein, although those are clearly novels, while U. and I is nonfiction and stranger than either.

For one thing, Baker writes, "though I think about Updike a lot, I seldom read him: surely a true obsessive would read all the available works." Early on, he notes that he's read less than five pages of certain Updikes, fewer than 20 of others, less than half of another handful, and so on.

"It did feel kind of hard to type that list," the author concedes. "I think of Updike coming to it and saying, 'Wait a minute.' " Baker hasn't even read Rabbit Is Rich, so he probably won't be first in line to buy Rabbit at Rest, the final novel in the series and the expected source of a lot of hoopla right about now. This is what makes U. and I, as Baker readily admits, "completely personal and idiosyncratic."

U. and I is the final volume in a loose trilogy. The next book, Baker says, will be a real novel in a way that The Mezzanine and Room Temperature were not. Of course, the particular pleasure of those books is that they were not typical. If you describe The Mezzanine, it sounds like the most painfully boring nouveau roman ever: a man goes out on his lunch hour to buy a pair of shoelaces, after which he rides an escalator. But readers were seduced with such items as the chart for the number of times thoughts occur in a given year ("Job, should I quit?: 34 times") and footnotes about how sneaker knots are different from dress knots.

It didn't set out to be like that. The novel he planned to write had "a real plot, a number of characters and a premise and all that junk. But I had this horrible feeling of constriction in the chest as I got to those parts. I kept compressing and compressing, and I ended up discarding the plot with a feeling of liberation."

All of this work is going on in a New York town roughly between Rochester and Buffalo. It was a place where Baker and his wife Margaret could afford a house; more to the point, he says, "There's no reason we have to be anywhere. Places where people choose to be, like Boston and the Bay Area, have a different feeling from those spots where you're forced to slowly find the things in it that are interesting. In Rochester everything that is good is more treasured, because you don't feel half the world trying to get there."

Thurber Redrawn

GIVEN THE great boom in children's publishing, it's odd that The 13 Clocks and The Wonderful O, two James Thurber classics from the '50s, were allowed to go out of print. The 13 Clocks is especially wonderful: It stars the evil Duke, whose "hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings off nightingales."

Both books have now been reissued by Donald I. Fine in editions that are exact facsimiles of the originals. Well, almost exact. Marc Simont, the illustrator, replaced the very last of the gouaches in The 13 Clocks. Previously, it showed the clawed foot of the Todal, a monster that looks like a blob of glup, makes a sound like rabbits screaming, and smells of old, unopened rooms.

"I knew Thurber didn't want it portrayed, but I thought a suggestion would be okay," says Simont. "He didn't say anything when I told him, but I could sense he was a little disturbed. And as I thought back on it through the years, he seemed more disturbed than he let on."

Why was Simont describing his illustrations in the first place? Because that's the only way Thurber, who was by then completely blind, knew what they contained. "It's not easy to describe illustrations, believe me," says Simont.

Take, for example, the Golux in The 13 Clocks. He's billed as having "an indescribable hat." Says Simont: "Thurber asked me to describe what I had done. It was kind of difficult -- the hat flops over from one side to the other and there's a thing coming out the back, a peak that doesn't peak. I said, 'It's pretty hard to describe.' He said, 'That's fine.' "

Fans of Simont's drawings will also be pleased to learn that he has reillustrated Thurber's Many Moons, a 1943 fantasy classic that won the Caldecott Medal in its original form for Louis Slobodkin's pictures. Interestingly, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich plans to keep both versions in print.

The Writing Life

THE BACK flap of The Last Surprise, a mystery about the murder of a senator, has exactly this to say about the author: "William Moore is a Washington attorney involved with Congress." What does that mean? Are they having a little fling, rendezvousing on weekends in a bankrupt savings and loan?

"If it had said, 'William Moore is a Washington attorney who knows there is a Congress' it would have made as much sense," says Moore. "This is one of the lessons of being a first-time author. I kept thinking they were going to tell me, 'Now's the time to get your picture in for the cover, to give us your biography.' No one told me, and then I realized the ship had sailed."

Still and all, it's been a rather pleasant six months since St. Martin's published the book. One of Moore's partners at Shea and Gardner had a dinner party for him. There have been a couple of book-signing sessions. He's writing another volume and it's going well. "It's not Presumed Innocent, but I was satisfied," says Moore.

The novel mixes local fixtures (Crisfield's, the Hawk and Dove, Washingtonian, the Mayflower Hotel) with invented ones. There's also a restaurant called the Kon-Tiki, complete with scale model of the eponymous raft. Two of Moore's friends got in an argument about that. It seems one said there was such a place and he'd eaten there. The other said no. They ended up calling Moore. "I got a kick out of that," he says.

Men and Mules

WHAT HATH Hemingway wrought? The Faulkner Write-Alike contest, sponsored by American Way magazine, seems to have been inspired by a similar (and now defunct) contest to imitate Papa as poorly as possible. Appropriately enough, the winner was a 26-year-old Englishman writing his doctoral dissertation on Faulkner. (The prize, "an exotic vacation for two," was awarded at this year's Faulkner conference in Oxford, Miss.) Here's the first paragraph -- first sentence, actually -- of Saul Rosenberg's "Delta Faulkner":

"They came that year as they had come the year before and would come again the year after: the editors and publishers and critics good bad and indifferent but mostly indifferent and some just to say oh yes the faulkner conference I made one and even the representatives of an airline who had come to award a prize on the lawn of the stillupkept colonial mansion to that one who man woman or child could write as well as he could when he didnt and wise too not because it was easy (it wasnt) and not because it would do their airline any good (it wouldnt) but at least it was possible because heaven help anyone who thought he or she could write as well as he could when he did; the mansion upkept still though the very bones of its erstwhile owner (himself owner and proprietor too of that two thousand four hundred square miles of land more famous than any actual or apocryphal in the whole peopled continent) which had held together long enough to support the spirit that produced the work in what agony what sweat had long since returned to the annealing immemorial dust."

In the Margin

NO ONE cared when the University of California published Samir Al-Khalil's Republic of Fear: The Inside Story of Saddam's Iraq last year. Now that Saddam and his country are big-time news, Pantheon is rushing out a paperback with a new introduction by the author arguing that "the underlying cause of the Gulf crisis is the abject failure of Arab political culture even to formulate, much less solve in practice, questions of legitimacy, freedom and the nature of citizenship" . . . .

We no doubt have glasnost to thank for On an Average Day in the Soviet Union (Fawcett), but the message conveyed by its numbers comes from the chilliest era of the Cold War: Life in the U.S.S.R. is no bed of turnips. Half the schools don't have running water, there are twice as many alcoholics as here at home, seven times as many people arrested for public drunkenness, and so on. Twenty-nine million Soviet children cannot swim, you're told on one page, there being only 2,500 swimming pools in the country. On the next page, it says 55 Soviets drown each day, compared to 14 in the U.S. Are they all drowning in that handful of swimming pools, or what?