SLIVER By Ira Levin Bantam. 256 pp. $19.95
IRA LEVIN's elegant and artful new thriller tails off into something less than that at its conclusion, but any book about a compulsive yuppie peeper with a raging Oedipus complex is still okay by me. Sliver is as pointed, slim and nasty as its title promises, and serves as a reminder that we can always use another new novel by this careful and painstaking writer -- he's too parsimonious by half. His last novel, The Boys From Brazil, was published in 1976, and immediately gave birth to a school of thrillers, none as good as its parent, about restless Nazis planning unpleasant surprises for the rest of us.
Before that, Rosemary's Baby was a crucial factor in the reawakening of horror as a popular genre; and it too was recklessly, even mercilessly imitated by the numberless hacks and bozos who get their inspiration from the work of better writers. How many novels about satanic cults and devil-children came out in its wake? How many movies? About as many, I suppose, as the number of glassy-eyed fantasy novels set in dreary nowheres that stumbled, thumbs in their mouths, along in Tolkien's deep footsteps. The point is that Levin is a very careful writer who takes the time to make sure that his ideas are fresh and original before he starts work. This isn't art, exactly, but it's the next best thing, entertainment of an exactingly high order.
Sliver tracks the growing attraction and developing love affair between a superficially charming man in his mid-twenties who claims to be a freelance computer jock, and a female editor in her late thirties with a pronounced resemblance to a long-dead television actress named Thea Marshall. We know -- though the editor, Kay Norris, does not -- that her lover has been watching and listening to her through the high-tech cameras and microphones installed in all the rooms of her apartment (as he watches every inhabitant of the "sliver" apartment building he had constructed in the Carnegie Hill section of New York) since she first arrived in his building.Goodlooking, sexy, genuinely charming, astonishingly rich, the man uses the information gained through his secret video installations to charm and seduce Kay into a relationship.
This is about where things would start to fade to black in the hands of a lesser writer (and where the blood will begin to spout, when this book is imitated by the above-mentioned bozos.) Levin has already demonstrated his ability to create unease, his talent for inventing complicated, interesting characters, and given us many instances of the way his unobtrusive and efficient style can introduce telling detail. He knows what a has-been television director wears when he steps out to the local market (a much-washed Beethoven sweatshirt) and how much to tip the doorman and the super when you move into a new building ($10 and $20 respectively, so now you know too). He knows what kind of cat scratcher his heroine would buy at Bloomingdale's. His plot has ripened, and his heroine is about to discover that her young lover is the owner of the building the newspapers have begun to call "The Horror High-Rise." Norman Bates would know what to do.
But Levin has only begun to pull his series of rugs out from under us. Soon Kay and her lover are lounging before the screens, promising themselves that they will watch their neighbors only a little bit longer, they'll cut down to an hour a day, they'll taper off. Levin's heroine is a corruptible human being. ONE OF the pleasures of Sliver is the richness of its economy. Nothing in it is wasted. Words and phrases recur, gaining meaning and irony as they reappear: "The Guiding Light," "the golden age of television," "sliver." The book is assembled like a Faberge egg. Each new event enhances and suggests and is subtly connected to the rest of the novel. Right up to the conclusion, Levin's people keep surprising us with their refusal to conform to the roles and attitudes the conventional thriller would assign them.
I cannot fault Ira Levin too much if his climax seems a bit too cinematic, even television-ish, to suit the delicate craft and irony with which the rest of the book is made: Anybody who has tried to write such a book knows how difficult, in fact nearly impossible, it is to end it truly satisfactorily. The bad character will be defeated, and the good one will win -- there will be gunshots or something along those lines, there will be a big scene. I'm sure Levin put in all the required praying and fasting the writing of this kind of scene demands, but the result here seems scanty and rushed to me. Afterwards, however, Levin concludes his book with an excellent bit of black humor, so I'm willing to forgive him and wait for his next book. Sliver is too good to be undone by a conventional bit of flash at the climax. Peter Straub is the author of the novels "Ghost Story," "Koko," "Mystery" and the recently published collection of stories, "Houses Without Doors."