November 02, 1998 12:00 PM

by John Updike

The ultimate WASP has produced another wonderful piece of Jewish fiction. In this, his third go-round with soulful Manhattan literary lion Henry Bech, Updike gets under his character’s skin as naturally as Sinatra inhabits the soul of a heartbroken guy at the bar at 3 a.m. Bech goes on European junkets, plays the role of celebrity author at colleges and gabs about the old days in the crammed second-floor offices of Displeasure magazine. Before his final emergence as a Nobel laureate, the aging Bech, who is “good in bed but impotent elsewhere,” discards a mistress, acquires another and figures out a way to kill selected critics with impunity.

Bech at Bay is a comic delight, especially deft in its satirical treatment of New York intellectual warfare. A high point comes when Bech (who says he wouldn’t mind “if all other writers vanished”) gets to put down, in order, such rivals as Irving, Fowles, Hawkes, Barth, O’Hara, Hersey, Cheever and Updike—”and that was just the Johns.” (Knopf, $23)

Bottom Line: Wicked satire of the literary whirl

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