FAMOUS AFTER DEATH

By Benjamin Cheever

Crown. 211 pp. $23

Reviewed by Mike Musgrove

Noel Hammersmith is an editor in his mid-thirties at Acropolis Press, a failing enterprise that likes to call itself "the best little publishing house in America." Hammersmith is a man with a literary bent but has somehow ended up as the editing hand behind a number of offbeat diet books, such as "The All-Poison Diet," which turns eating into a sort of Russian roulette, and "The Butterscotch Sundae Diet," which consists of eating nothing but one butterscotch sundae a day.

It's a life packed to capacity with quiet desperation. Women don't like him. His analyst is bored by him and claims he must be "hiding something" on the grounds that no one could possibly be so dull. He longs to be famous. He longs to lose weight. He longs to put out a book not aimed at the flabby set.

Ah, but fortunately enough it looks like there might at least be a solution to that last item, when a fellow who calls himself Che Guevera enters the picture with a proposal to write a book on terrorism and bombing in America. There's no evidence that the fellow can write, unless you count a few bylines in Soldier of Fortune, but, desperate for a change of pace, Noel grabs it anyway and offers Guevera a book deal. Meanwhile (this sentence to be read in a stage whisper), a series of bombings is occurring across the country, bombings that this writer Guevera might (wink, wink) know something about.

With Hammersmith's help, Guevera's terrorism book slowly comes into focus, but not before the police bring things to a halt by catching the man responsible for the bombings. The police know the bomber isn't our hero Noel Hammersmith, but they bring him in anyway to make him a rather unusual offer. Here's the deal: It turns out that for years the police have been substituting ordinary, non-psychopathic folks for real killers. Somewhere down the line in modern American history, we're told, some mysterious somebody in a position of power got tired of madmen using the press as a megaphone for their crackpot ideas. On the shaky assumption that killers do what they do mainly in order to become famous, it was decided that part of the punishment for heinous crimes should be the denial of that fame.

So in place of the real bomber, who will instead rot anonymously in jail for the rest of his natural-born life, Noel is offered a chance to take "credit" for the bombs. Naturally, he becomes a celebrity prisoner and ends up on magazine covers talking about any cause he feels like talking about. His favorite topic is quality control -- he complains about the current shoddy quality of Brooks Brothers shirts and Swiss army knives, among other things -- and "his" bombings are hailed on op-ed pages across the country as "a cry for civility."

Life could be worse. Sure, he's in jail, but at least he can now catch up on his reading and at least he doesn't have to edit diet books anymore. Plus, now he's getting suck-up letters from Norman Mailer and sympathetic interviews by Barbara Walters, and Don Johnson is about to play him in a mini-series. And, last but not least, he's finally got his weight under control and marriage proposals are rolling in from lovestruck women across the country.

There are a few good laughs tucked away in this trifle of a novel, but considering the number of attempts that are made there would almost have to be. Most of the efforts at humor, though, are entry-level gags that manage to dilute the effect when Cheever does pull off a sharp line or two. (The editor of diet books . . . is himself a fat man! When a "shatterproof" clock radio falls off a nightstand . . . it shatters!)

Statements on the order of "Products are the language of our times" and "Advertising is our highest art form" are trotted out every few pages or so in Famous After Death. But while there are a few clues that suggest Cheever wanted to serve up a book that would be a scathing statement on our media-obsessed, consumer culture, he never works up much to say on the matter one way or another.

Cheever's main character, Noel Hammersmith, is as vain and foolish as the average protagonist in a Christopher Buckley novel, but Buckley's characters are interesting because he bothers to make them intelligent also. Hammersmith is nothing but a placeholder drawn forth from the void in order to serve as a patsy for a reasonably clever plot hook in an otherwise empty book. While there are some notes for a good satirical novel in Famous After Death, this book reads more like the pitch than the finished product.

Mike Musgrove is on the staff of The Post's Fast Forward section.