William Kotzwinkle

Dutton/Seymour Lawrence. 277 pp. $17.95

"The Exile" is a psychological mind bender in which William Kotzwinkle explores the intriguing concept of parallel dimensions. It is a not-quite-science fiction novel that turns out to be both humorous and frightening at the same time. He sets himself a formidable task, for he chooses three subjects that have been the most overworked and often the worst handled in contemporary fiction: Hollywood, Nazi Germany and psychiatry. That Kotzwinkle brings off the last two and does a passable job with the first is a compliment to his storytelling ability.

The plot concerns David Caspian, a successful Hollywood star who had, "When he was young ... gone to Rome and acted in spaghetti westerns, then drifted to Germany and ended up in an ensemble company doing Brecht revivals." Like everyone in Hollywood, Caspian is totally insecure, at the mercy of avaricious agents and carnivorous producers. "Three flops and you go to make films in godforsaken places where you can still get your price -- like Guam. And then you sign a ten-year contract to advertise antacid tablets. And then you hire a ghost to write a lying biography about you. And then you die."

Caspian's personal life, such as it is, consists of a tranqued-out ad executive wife and a sad little daughter who spends most of her time weeping.

Slowly, first for only seconds, then minutes, then hours, Caspian, by involuntarily stepping through a crack in time, finds himself in Nazi Germany near the end of World War II. The war is lost and in the last frantic days of Hitler's empire all anyone is concerned with is stockpiling money in whatever illegal manner presents itself. Caspian's alter ego is Felix Falkenhayn, a soldier engaged in dangerous black market activities, playing a cat and mouse game with the Gestapo.

In Felix's world there are counterparts for everyone from Caspian's Hollywood: the bombastic producer; Myron Fish, Caspian's smarmy agent; the screen writer Caspian is paying to write an artsy-craftsy script; his leading lady. Caspian remembers everything that has happened when he is, as it were, dreaming of Babylon, while Felix has vague glimpses of that warm place he has visited in his dreams.

Kotzwinkle's ultimate accomplishment is to create parallel moral worlds between the seemingly unrelated 1980s Hollywood and Berlin circa 1944. But create a startlingly accurate parallel he does, showing each society to be immoral and avaricious beyond belief; both, beneath their versions of glitter and glitz, are totally devoid of substance. Each society shows no respect for human life. People are treated as animals and reduced to animal-like behavior. In Germany some political prisoners are actually "melted down," while in Hollywood the same punishment is meted out, but in a metaphorical sense.

In an effort to understand what is happening to him, Caspian runs to the great Hollywood pacifier, the psychiatrist. He and Dr. Gaillard spend a lot of time and Caspian's money discussing possibilities. The idea that "man may be defeated but not destroyed" becomes the theme of the novel. Caspian finally decides "that I've fallen into a time that's already fixed. A film that's already been made. I can star in it, but I can't change how it turns out."

One difficulty with "The Exile" is that none of the major characters is sympathetic. Caspian longs to act in a quality movie but his greed and insecurity cause him to star in space epics. At one point Felix rescues a young girl from a concentration camp, but he hardens himself to the atrocities he sees all around him, as when one of his cohorts appears with a bag of gold taken from prisoners' teeth. The language occasionally gets away: "... and the camera of his soul rushed to a closeup ..." "He guided a rented car through memories." There is one scene in which Caspian discovers a tattoo of a falcon emerging on his arm. It is never mentioned again, and the reader wonders how such a tattoo could be kept secret, even from a family as indifferent as Caspian's.

The parallel worlds of Felix and Caspian veer together, then part, then cross each other and diverge. Caspian spends longer and longer times in Felix's world, yet when he awakes to Hollywood he finds he has been giving the performance of his life in his latest movie.

Kotzwinkle allows the novel to build slowly until, in the last 100 pages, the book becomes glued to the reader's hands as the devastating climactic scenes pile one on another. This reviewer suffered nightmares after reading the final pages, nightmares that were testimony to Kotzwinkle's powerful writing.

The reviewer is the author of "Shoeless Joe," "The Iowa Baseball Confederacy" and "The Thrill of the Grass."