Too Many Authors

THERE ARE some controversies that never quite make it to the surface. Things are hushed up, people don't talk, the matter is just too complex to develop into a full-fledged scandal. Such is the case of Craig Strete and the novel Death in the Spirit House, an imbroglio too bizarre even to permit labeling any of the players "victim" or "villain."

At first glance, things seemed simple. A science fiction writer with several books to his credit and an established if not particularly acclaimed name in the field, Strete published Death in the Spirit House as a Doubleday Foundation hardcover in 1988. The novel sank, as most do, without a trace.

Earlier this year, the novel was listed as a forthcoming paperback from Bantam Spectra, corporate sister to Doubleday. No one would have cared, except the authorship was now credited to someone else. Strete, it appeared, had stolen an entire novel. This would be unprecedented in the annals of plagiarism. Some scientific research, a couple of paragraphs, sure -- but an entire novel was a real breakthrough.

San Jose State University, where Strete teaches in the creative writing program, announced an investigation. Allegations were made about other elements in the writer's past -- his stories about his relationship with Jim Morrison of the rock group the Doors, blurbs and introductions to his books by such conveniently dead luminaries as Dali and Borges -- that suddenly seemed less than authentic.

But when the paperback failed to appear, observers concluded that Doubleday was no longer as convinced of the plagiarism allegation as it had once been. Both Strete and the supposed real author, Ron Montana, became enmeshed in discussions with the publisher. Said a spokesman for the house last week: "We're still working towards an amiable solution."

What happened? Los Angeles writer Sheldon Teitelbaum did a thorough investigation of the matter in a piece for the L.A. Times Magazine. The article never ran, apparently because the editors considered the whole matter just too fringe for such exhaustive treatment. Teitelbaum consented, however, to share with Book Report the fruits of his labors.

The story begins in the late '70s, when Montana was a would-be novelist and screenwriter, Strete a Hollywood script doctor for low-budget films. Montana had a script, which he showed Strete; then he changed it to a novel, and showed Strete that.

Before he stopped talking, Montana contended that the next thing he knew was when he was wandering around a science fiction convention in 1988. He saw an early copy of the soon-to-be-published Spirit House. "This is my book," he told a friend. "I can't believe this guy did this."

Strete, who doesn't deny that a substantial part of the novel is by Montana, has a rather different story. He contends that he and Montana collaborated on a version of the novel that didn't work out, and that this is what Doubleday mistakenly published -- instead of Strete's vastly rewritten version from which all of Montana's contributions had been eliminated. Doubleday, he says, sent the wrong manuscript to the printers.

Reaction to this scenario among various sources, Teitelbaum found, ranged from a grudging belief that Doubleday might be at least slightly to blame ("It's the most incredible screw-up imaginable") to outright denial ("It's such a grandiose lie, {Strete} probably believes it").

Teitelbaum's own conclusion? He found a source in Doubleday who largely substantiated Strete's version. Accordingly, he tends to believe that the whole matter "appears to stem more from {Strete's} disheveled and disorganized approach to the business of writing and publishing than from any truly demonic intent to steal someone's work." Prepared for the Worst

EDWARD LIMONOV isn't the only Soviet expatriate writer who wants to return home, but he's got to be one of the few who insists on becoming part of the government, too. Specifically, he wants to be a people's deputy, very roughly equivalent to a congressman over here. "So many writers are elected," he asks in his accented but adequate English, "Why not me?"

Well, for one reason because your primary interest to date, at least as expressed in the three autobiographical novels that have been published in this country, has been sexual conquest. That, plus living the Manhattan low life -- going on welfare, picking up cigarette butts in the street when you couldn't afford to buy a pack, petty thievery.

"I live at your expense, you pay taxes and I don't do a {expletive} thing," he said at the beginning of It's Me, Eddie (1983), a book that recalled Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski in its lively celebration of the lower depths.

Writing about life in the gutter got Limonov out of it; he's off welfare now, lives in France and is a successful author. But he maintains that those years underground were perfect training for helping out his countrymen now. Are they struggling this winter to find enough food to feed themselves? "I was ahead of them," the writer says. "When I arrived in Paris I had to go pick up vegetables in the streets after the markets closed."

He was the dissidents' dissident. He didn't exactly get along with the Soviet authorities -- he left the country in 1974 after refusing to cooperate with the secret police, who were interested in his friendships with diplomats -- but he didn't get along with the rebels, either. He criticized everyone from Sakharov to Solzhenitsyn, and says now of the latter that "he started as a good writer, but I cannot read his books after Ivan Denisovitch. Too loud, heavy with hundreds of thousands, millions of words. He has graphomania, an obsession with writing. Even in Russian it's completely boring."

Limonov's own works are less burdened by the weight of history: The past he's concerned about is his own. Unlike some other novelists of this type, he hasn't lacked for material. "I've never arrived at the dead point where for material I must parachute myself into Latin America. Plenty of tragedy, difficulty and excitement on every corner."

Memoir of a Russian Punk (Grove Weidenfeld) is the third title to be published here, but chronologically it's the earliest. The story takes place in 1958, when "Eddie-baby" is 15, just getting interested in sex and already an accomplished tough and poet. This is growing up absurd, Russian style:

"Until . . . {Eddie's} parents were finally forced to buy him glasses, he thought his mother was very beautiful. But after he put on his glasses, he not only looked through the window into their snowy yard and saw a group of kids hitting the humpbacked Tolik Perevorachaev, a friend of his at the time, but he also noted with horror that there were wrinkles on his mother's face and large pores in her skin, a fact that made him very, very sad, and he took off his glasses and decided to use them only to read and write."

Limonov's aesthetic credo: "It makes books more strong, more believable if based on a real person. I don't like novels. For technical purposes the publishers call my books novels but they're not."

For similar technical reasons, he adds, the Soviet Union is called a country, but it is not. His impression after a recent visit: "It looks horrible, like a horror movie. A sinister place in every possible way. There is tension in the air, people are very hostile to each other. It's the mental collapse of the Soviet society."

All the more reason to run for office. "I wasn't interested so much before," Limonov concedes. "But as of now they have revolutionary situation. It seems much more interesting . . . Under Gorbachev, the state policy of the Soviet Union is masochism." To Be Continued

A HUMOR BOOK prospers by overabundance. If you can pick up the good jokes by paging through it in the store, why pay $16.95 to take it home? The Book of Sequels (Random House), by the experienced team of Henry Beard, Christopher Cerf, Sarah Durkee and Sean Kelly, passes that test: They'll throw you out before you finish reading. The only problem is, you'll need to have read most of the other books in the store to get all the laughs.

Take the opening of Solitude: The Next One Hundred Years, a seven-page takeoff on the best-known Latin American novel. "Many years later," it begins, "as he faced the yanqui soldiers in the street outside the Papal Nuncio's house, General Antonio Noriega was to remember that distant afternoon when his adoptive mother took him to see the Canal."

That's clever, but if you haven't read or have forgotten Garcia Marquez's original, a smile will pass you by. Even the mock television listings are complicated. Take Ryecatcher!: "Holden Caulfield foils a plot to turn his old prep school into a right-wing military academy run by neo-Nazis." Too obscure a riff off "Spycatcher"? Then try "Chariots of Fur": "The Lord of Greystoke returns to the jungle as Tarzan to recruit apes to compete in the 1924 Olympics."

The concept here, of course, is "the greatest stories ever retold." So there's Gone With the Wind as retold by Alice Walker, Erica Jong and Joyce Carol Oates ("Tara, the main house, protrudes from the cankered land . . ."). There's Moby-Dick as retold by Tom Clancy ("Don't call me, Ishmael -- I'll call you," Admiral Charles 'Chuck' Chairweather barked into the telephone"). And there's the Library of Yiddish Sequels: A Perfect Day for Gefilte Fish, The Accidental Tsuris, Rabbi Run, Lubliners, Dybbuk of Laughter and Forgetting and Oy, Wilderness. This is humor with a college degree. In the Margin

THE LATEST round in the battle between Ted Hughes and the biographers of his wife, poet Sylvia Plath, has been won by Hughes. Art historian Trevor Thomas wrote in his 1989 book, Sylvia Plath: Last Encounters, that Hughes attended a "high-spirited and boisterous party" hours after Plath was buried in 1963. Hughes, now Britain's poet laureate, sued the biographer for libel, who has now admitted in court that he was wrong. Allegations like Thomas's have tended to fuel the fires of those who dislike Hughes for his perceived mistreatment of the feminist icon. The couple were estranged at the time of her suicide . . . .

Ralph Block's "Not Theatre, Not Literature, Not Painting" was commissioned by the poet Marianne Moore while she was an editor at The Dial magazine. The 1927 article is considered an important early defense of the art of filmmaking, and as such has been reprinted in at least two anthologies. That wasn't enough for Ernest Kroll, a retired Japanese affairs specialist with the State Department and a poet whose lines "How shall you act the natural man in this/ Invented city, neither Rome nor home?" are chiseled in granite on Pennsylvania Avenue's Western Plaza. Kroll, who is Block's literary executor, arranged for the publication of a fine press book. Bearing the highly specific title Marianne Moore at The Dial Commissions an Article on the Movies, the volume has been produced in a very limited run of a hundred copies. This is small press publishing at its smallest, but it's also a handsome memorial.