THE BODY OF JONAH BOYD *

By David Leavitt. Bloomsbury. 215 pp. $23.95 Some novelists are able to make a career by strip-mining their own lives, writing thinly veiled autobiography, while others work best by imagining themselves as far from their own experience as possible. David Leavitt has usually been the former sort of writer; his previous novel, the awkwardly titled Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing, was a large, rambling, comic bildungsroman about a young gay writer (a lot like David Leavitt) who studies with a flamboyant creative writing teacher (a lot like Leavitt's teacher Gordon Lish) and who faces the equivocal consequences of early success (a lot like Leavitt has). At least once before, however, Leavitt imagined himself into somebody else's autobiography, in his novel While England Sleeps, which was about an English anti-fascist poet in the '30s who was a lot like Stephen Spender. This novel got Leavitt into trouble -- Spender sued him, and Leavitt was forced to make changes -- which was unfortunate, because it's Leavitt's liveliest and least self-conscious book.

Leavitt's latest novel, the clever and extremely entertaining The Body of Jonah Boyd, isn't quite as distant from his experience as the Spanish Civil War, but it still relies more on imagination than on autobiography. It's also his first novel to be narrated in the first person by a woman and a heterosexual (more or less), to wit, a sharp-tongued and quietly observant university secretary named Judith "Denny" Denham. Her boss is a prominent psychology professor, Dr. Ernest Wright, and in the complicated way of ingrown academic communities, Denny has become a de facto member of the Wright household -- part maiden aunt, part unpaid housekeeper.

That may make her sound like a victim, but the truth is she's anything but. Denny is a past mistress of passive-aggressive manipulation, skillfully playing both ends against the middle: sleeping with Dr. Wright on the weekends and, during the week, playing four-hand piano with Dr. Wright's lonely and high-strung wife, Nancy. This puts her in a better position than most secretaries to know the secrets of her boss's family, and she shrewdly observes the melodrama around her, as the Wrights' eldest son flees to Canada to avoid the draft, their daughter carries on a secret affair with one of Dr. Wright's grad students and, most important, the Wrights' sullen, narcissistic youngest son decides he wants to be a writer.

The autobiographical elements are lightly worn here. The novel's set in a fictional California university town a lot like Palo Alto, where Leavitt grew up in an academic family. And one suspects that Ben, the obnoxious fledgling writer, is something of a mocking self-portrait (though, in another first for Leavitt, he's not gay). Just how mocking becomes clear when Nancy's best friend from back east, Anne, comes to visit, accompanied by her new husband, a well-known novelist named Jonah Boyd. The result is the best sequence in the novel, a bravura, 50-page comic set piece of Thanksgiving at the Wright household that climaxes in a sort of competition between the bratty wannabe Ben and the pompous and condescending Jonah Boyd. This in turn results in a literary disaster, the true nature of which isn't revealed for another 30 years. I don't want to give it away, but let's just say Leavitt is still -- comically, entertainingly -- working through his Stephen Spender issues.

Indeed, the big surprise of the book is easily guessed long before Leavitt pulls aside the curtain, but even so, the impact of the revelation relies more on its moral complexity than it does on shock value. A bigger problem for the book is that, while the prose is never less than glittering, the stunning Thanksgiving set piece is sandwiched between two rather large chunks of pure exposition. In the first, Denny simply lays out the geography of the town and of the family, while after the Thanksgiving sequence, she in effect summarizes most of the rest of the story. Relatively little is dramatized, which has often been a problem with Leavitt's work; pages and pages of Martin Bauman, for example, are pure exposition. This, of course, may be more a matter of taste than anything else; "show, don't tell" has become a writing workshop cliche, and there's a solid tradition in Europe (think Milan Kundera or W. G. Sebald) of entire novels that are told, not shown. Still, Leavitt is such a stunning dramatist of the private anxieties and mixed motives of a social gathering that it's a shame he didn't dramatize more.

In the end, though, the novel satisfies, for three reasons. One is the way the book turns the question of literary originality into a tragic moral conundrum. Another is the clever construction of the plot, which resolves with the precision-engineered snap of a Victorian novel. And the third and most important reason is the pure pleasure of reading the brisk, unblinkered and often hilarious judgments of an academic secretary on her betters. It's a sharp, backstage view of a certain type of middle-class life, like a Jane Austen novel told from the point of view of one of the servants, and I suspect that Ms. Austen herself would have enjoyed the result. *

James Hynes's latest novel is "Kings of Infinite Space."