The Return of Ira Levin

SEVERAL YEARS ago, Ira Levin got rid of his drapes, bought a telescope and took a look at the world.

The first thing he noticed, peering through his Bausch and Lomb Balscope 20X, was that everyone else in his Manhattan neighborhood had telescopes on their windowsills. It was a world of voyeurs out there.

One of the things people were looking at was the accidents caused by the drivers turning off Park Avenue onto one of the cross streets without benefit of a favorable light. "I don't even look unless it's a really good solid impact," Levin says with his customary, almost continual chuckle. "A minor bump, and I don't bother."

What else has he seen? "When the apartment was being redone, I moved around the corner. The guys who were working here swore that every morning there were a couple of women across the street who put on a show for them. I looked, of course."

But he didn't see any undraped females. What he found instead from his 15th floor corner perch was that his neighbors were pretty good about pulling the shades. The best Levin can remember is that he once saw a couple fighting. "You could tell by the body language they were arguing, but who knows what about?"

That's it? No "Rear Window"-style murders? No spies betraying their country, or meetings of devil worshippers?

"That's it. It was boring. I wanted to imagine something more interesting."

And so he did with Sliver, his new novel (reviewed on page 6). A telescope wasn't much use for prying, but what if you could have cameras inside an apartment building, hooked up so you could peer into every room? Then the reality would be hypnotic.

"I got the sense of people living in a hive, with stories going on everywhere, and how interesting it would be to be privy to them all. And the more I kept seeing things like 'America's Funniest Home Videos,' the more I thought that this is where television is going -- to reality. It's always getting away from fiction."

Levin has spent most of the last 15 years successfully getting away from fiction too. He started Sliver about four years ago, but became dissatisfied and put it down. Time passed, much of which Levin spent watching television in his living room, a high-tech sort of place that features a projection screen almost the size of a movie theater's and a couch with 18 pillows onwhich to watch it.

What saved the novel, or at least speeded up its eventual completion, was Levin's attendance at a party given by fellow author Donald Westlake. There were other mystery writers there as well, and they were talking in the following fashion: "I just finished my 18th novel . . . I'm writing another screenplay . . . My last effort was a book club selection."

In addition to describing their own fecundity, they were all admiring of Levin's work. He went home feeling very lazy and self-indulgent. The next morning he started Sliver again. "I have never been able to work unless I'm really excited about what I'm doing, unless it demands to be written," he says. "That's why I've written relatively very little, considering how long I've been at it."

A fair amount of that oeuvre has now been reissued by Bantam in paperback to accompany their edition of Sliver. I would have traded his 1970 science fiction novel, This Perfect Day, for a collection of his plays, particularly the chillers "Deathtrap" and "Veronica's Room." But it's especially nice to see Rosemary's Baby again, surely one of the best-written novels to sell four million copies. It's the ultimate in paranoid fiction -- no matter how bad Rosemary thinks things are, they're actually much, much worse.

Rosemary's Baby is typical Levin in one sense: The heroine is betrayed by the man closest to her. That is also the plot of his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, a superb chiller (published when he was all of 23) which will be released in its second film version next month, and should be reissued in paperback then too. And of course it's the very bedrock of The Stepford Wives, the 1972 novel about a group of men who replace their wives with look-alike robots. Perhaps there's a personal reason for the persistence of this betrayal theme over nearly 40 years?

"My parents argued a lot," Levin says weakly. Another laugh.

"Most of the women I've been involved with have been very nice," the twice-divorced writer adds. "I'm not going to fault them publicly. It's just an interest in making a good story. You've got to have drama. Someone's got to be threatened by somebody."The Answer Mensch HOW'S THIS FOR self-sacrifice? Jim Besser has just published his first book, but the only place his name appears is the copyright page. There's no author photo, no biography, no acknowledgements even. That's as close to anonymous as you can get.

"Sol the Answer Man" is the nom de plume on Do They Keep Kosher on Mars? And Other Pressing Questions of Jewish Life (Collier Books). A collection of material that originally appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times, the paperback covers issues ranging from the cosmic (Can Jews who keep kosher play football if it's made with a genuine pigskin? Why aren't Orthodox Jews big on exercise?) to the more earthbound (i.e., why Jews call smoked salmon "lox" while other Americans call it "smoked salmon").

There are also some stray non-Jewish questions in the chapter headed "The Unbearable Weirdness of Being," including whether marshmallows are vegetables.

"Sure," Sol answers, "marshmallows are vegetables, and matzo balls grow on teeny shrubs found only in the backyard of certified grandmothers." All other responses are delivered in similar high spirits, including the eternal matter of just who can call himself a Jew. Here Sol sides with David Ben-Gurion, who allegedly said, "Anyone meshuga enough to call himself a Jew is a Jew."

In real life, Besser is the political reporter for a number of Jewish newspapers, including the Times. "My judgment at the time was that humor and political writing might not be a terrific mix," the Alexandria author says of his decision to keep his name off the book. "In retrospect, it really doesn't make much difference one way or another."

But politics helped create Sol in the first place. "Covering Middle East diplomacy tends to be a little stressful, and I was getting bummed out. I thought a humor column would be a relief for me as well as some readers. And at least for me, it was."

While it didn't exactly convert Besser to orthodoxy, the column's two-and-a-half year run did have a serious side effect.

"I had this image that Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism, was incapable of dealing with modern problems. In fact, Orthodox thinkers have been tackling all kinds of ethical questions most of us would just as soon avoid. I was asked what Orthodox Jews think of cryobiology -- freezing people while they're still alive. My initial reaction was, why would they think about that? But I found it was a subject of very active discussion among rabbis."

Who, as it happens, are split on its merits. Out of the Shadows DESPITE ITS last year's win of a prestigious Carey-Thomas Award "in acknowledgement of twenty years of courageous political publishing," and despite its recent surprise garnering of a National Book Critics Circle nomination for Mike Davis's City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, Verso has been hampered by a reputation as a doctrinaire left-wing house. One reason is its partial ownership by the British magazine New Left Review, which also used to issue the more straightforwardly political New Left Books. Consequently, some of the Verso books have tended to disappear even before anyone knows they're here.

Case in point is Journeys Through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the 20th Century, by Gerald Martin. It appeared early last year and made little impact, but is a complex, pun-filled, constantly intriguing and extremely worthwhile work. Martin, an English professor, appears to have read everyone from Borges and Garcia Marquez to Manlio Argueta and Clarice Lispector, and thankfully keeps his use of lit-crit vocabulary to a minimum. It's not cheap ($20 for a paperback) but anyone interested in the Latin American novel will find profit here.

As for City of Quartz, the relatively few copies in East Coast bookstores promptly disappeared after the NBCC nomination. In California, native son Mike Davis's work -- a handsome book, incidentally, further enhanced by 50 of Robert Morrow's photographs -- is being hailed as one of the best recent examinations of an American city.

Davis outlines the corruption that built the city, the writers who depicted it as a racial hell (Chester Himes, Langston Hughes) or a wasteland for the Depression-crazed middle classes (James M. Cain, Horace McCoy), the struggles for water, the fierce battles to stratify neighborhoods simply by renaming them, the cultural confusion. There are some details only an Angeleno could appreciate, but the reader is propelled through them by Davis's rage to understand.

He writes of his encounter with a young Salvadoran immigrant, a building laborer who had learned about L.A. from watching dubbed "Starsky and Hutch" episodes. These prompted visions of "a city where everyone was young and rich and drove new cars and saw themselves on television. After ten thousand daydreams like this, he had deserted the Salvadorean Army and hitchhiked 2,500 miles to Tijuana. A year later he was standing at the corner of Alvarado and Seventh streets in the MacArthur Park district near downtown Los Angeles, along with all the rest of yearning, hardworking Central America. No one like him was rich or drove a new car -- except for the coke dealers -- and the police were as mean as back home. More importantly no one like him was on television; they were all invisible."