Boyd's British caricature of US is craggy oyster without a pearl

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Stars and Bars, by William Boyd. New York: Morrow. 334 pp. $16.95. Still in his early 30s, William Boyd is blessed -- or burdened -- with a reputation that threatens to overwhelm his literary accomplishments. His first novel, ``A Good Man in Africa,'' won the Whitbread, the Somerset Maugham, and the John Llewellyn Rhys awards. His second, ``An Ice-Cream War,'' was nominated for the Booker prize.

His latest, ``Stars and Bars,'' has already been warmly received in Britain, and its author (yet once more) is glowingly compared to Evelyn Waugh. (This comparison seems to serve among some reviewers as a general form of praise routinely applied to male British writers showing any sense of comedy or irony, just as female writers displaying such qualities are regularly likened to Jane Austen.)

Mr. Boyd was born in Ghana. He was schooled at Gordonstoun (just like Prince Charles), and later, at the Universities of Nice, Glasgow, and Jesus College at the University of Oxford

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Thus far, his approach to fiction has shown similar signs of eclecticism, relying upon the tried-and-true formula of presenting oneself as a purveyor of the exotic. His first two novels gave us glimpses of West and East Africa. ``Stars and Bars,'' as its title indicates, purports to render America as so often seen by British literary travelers: a wild, familiar, mind-boggling haven of inedible food, undrinkably ice-bound drinks, and ill-mannered people.

Anticipating, perhaps, the objections of American readers (the United States is the most lucrative and important market for British writers), or the objections of any reader who feels uncomfortable about gross caricatures of national or regional characteristics, Boyd takes as his hero a shy, British-born fellow named Henderson Dores, who works as an art valuer in New York City and who constantly insists how much he wants to become as indubitably ``American'' as the people around him.

In terms of disarming the reader, this is not a very effective device, because, given the irredeemable vileness of the Americans he encounters, Mr. Dores must either be a fool (if he can't see what they're like) or a knave (if he wants to be like them). Whatever his shortcomings as a role model, however, Dores's more literary flaw is that he is neither a believable nor even interesting fictional creation.

Not all novels, of course, are meant to charm or disarm us. The novelist has a right (at times, some would say, a duty) to be offensive. The central problem with ``Stars and Bars'' is not that it caricatures its subject. It is, after all, a satire, and satire, by definition, exaggerates and distorts reality to uncover a moral truth beneath the surface of reality. (A recent example is Martin Amis's dazzlingly repellent ``Money: A Suicide Note,'' reflections of a crass and selfish hero on a crass and selfish civilization.)

``Stars and Bars'' is a craggy oyster, but contains no pearl: only the original, irritating piece of grit that should have been made into a pearl, but was never transformed by empathy or polished by wit.

Boyd's satirical impulse founders between two styles: a crude, boisterous sort of slapstick on the one hand and rapier-sharp comedy of manners on the other. The more boisterous scenes of ``Stars and Bars'' (many of them set in the South) lack the vigorous invention, the delight in life's coarse energy, that redeems Boccaccio, Rabelais, and their descendants.

But when Boyd attempts a subtler approach, instead of wit and irony we get a sort of sophomoric silliness. Thus, Boyd mocks the outlandish combinations of nouvelle cuisine by taking his hero to a restaurant offering ``filet mignon in butterscotch sauce.''

At the very moment that he needs the perfect pitch and sensitivity to social nuance that we cherish in Angus Wilson, Evelyn Waugh, Thackeray, and Austen, Boyd shows himself deaf to cultural semitones. There is no point in satirizing a style of cookery based on avoiding rich sauces by claiming that it might produce butterscotch sauce on filet mignon. Strawberries, kiwi fruit, even curried snails, perhaps, but never butterscotch sauce.

Perhaps the huge canvas of American life was simply too much for Mr. Boyd. He may well need a smaller, more concentrated social milieu upon which to exercise and strengthen his skills as a writer.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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