Keith Smith, Molly Turner and John Moynihan are three recent refugees from the well-regarded creative writing program at the University of Virginia. With enough money to endow at least one issue's worth of a new magazine, they could have been expected to assemble the usual literary dreariness: Self-conscious lines of verse in steppes across white pages, anguished tales of life in the professoriat, delicate drawings of spider webs.

Instead they decided to have some fun, and they called it Timbuktu.

As the title would suggest -- Timbuktu is the ancient African gold-trading city -- the magazine has an exotic cast to it. Moynihan has composed the Timbuktu diary of an invented explorer, the irascible James Bradford Umbridge-Weldon. Serena Drew interviews the imaginary aviatrix Lucy Blaze. Cedric Tolley composes a wry travelogue of "A Week in Albania."

Moynihan, who is responsible for the magazine's design, has put the margins of these 8 1/2-by-11-inch pages to imaginative uses. They creep with odd illustrations -- figures in turbans and pith helmets, maps that metamorphose into skulls as you fan the pages -- or carry the text of longer stories in serial fashion, much as the old Whole Earth Catalogs used to do.

Speaking of the '60s, Moynihan, evidently a man of many parts, turns in a camp comic strip spoofing what must, to him, seem like ancient history; it's called "Brad Dharma: Psychedelic Detective." And there's still room under this circus tent for some unusual poems, among them the eerie wanderings of Eberle Umbach, the state poet of Idaho.

What a pleasure to find free spirits on the loose in Charlottesville. Timbuktu is available for $6 a year (two issues) by writing to P.O. Box 469, Charlottesville, Va. 22902.

Who's Afraid of Danny Sheehan?

Danny Sheehan has built his Christic Institute in Washington around the alarming proposition that there is a "Secret Team," operating at the tacit bidding of the U.S. government, which for 25 years has "supplied weapons as well as its unique assassination services to destroy Communist and Socialist movements in Cuba, Southeast Asia, Iran and the Middle East, and, latterly, Nicaragua. The Secret Team is the nightmare of the American Left come to life."

James Traub's thumbnail description of Sheehan's beliefs introduces the remarkably skeptical cover story he has written for the February/March Mother Jones. "Journalists, experts, Capitol Hill investigators, and former CIA agents, many of whom are sympathetic to Danny Sheehan's general critique of covert operations," Traub reports, "will tell you that his gorgeous tapestry is woven of rumor and half-truth and wish-fulfillment."

Sheehan is described here as a master of the conspirator's art -- he can "find in the confusing welter of events a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end." No wonder that, as Traub reports, "Christic is beginning to get a reputation for attracting the kind of fanatic camp followers who have occasionally made the Left an embarrassing place to be."

Yet Sheehan has become a man to be reckoned with in Washington, successfully raising money for and operating what Traub calls "a national phenomenon with 60 employees, a $2 million budget, and tens of thousands of devoted followers" that has some of the Iran-contra scoundrels red in the face. And by the edginess of their enemies shall ye know them, Traub concedes: "If Danny Sheehan has the Secret Team -- or whoever the hell they are -- running scared, he must be doing something right."

Greene With Envy

Parody, not imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery, so Chicago Sun-Times and Esquire columnist Bob Greene -- perhaps the most self-absorbed journalist writing today -- ought to be feeling pretty good about Dennis Rodkin's "Another Bob Greene Column" in the January/February issue of Inside Chicago.

This is how it begins:

"She is blonde, she is a proof-reader in a rubber-stamp factory, and she figures she'll live with her parents a few more years before getting an apartment of her own. I have come to talk to her because she is, as far as I can tell, the only remaining 19-year-old girl in America I have not interviewed this year.

"Watching her eat a cheeseburger in the Route 47 Mall in Hooterville, Iowa, these past 30 minutes, I have slowly realized that she has nothing to say ..."

Luce Lips

Michael Kinsley, editor of The New Republic and author of its "TRB" column, has signed up with Time to write regular pieces; they'll appear under the magazine's Essay rubric, even though Kinsley thinks that's too hifalutin a name for what he writes. His first contribution in this week's issue (Feb. 22) concerns the administration's recent decision to close the Palestine Information Office in Washington.

"No doubt it is as boring to hear once again as it is to point out," Kinsley writes, "that the First Amendment exists to protect unpopular views -- even rightly unpopular views. Unpopular views are, in fact, the only kind that need its protection. No one is trying to shut down Mothers Against Drunk Driving."