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'Lives of Novelists' is shrewd, witty entertainment

What an endearing old grumbler Samuel Johnson was. His way of beginning one of the classic works in the entire history of criticism his "Lives of the Poets" -- was to tell us all of the following in the opening paragraph of his life of Abraham Cowley: 1) that there was a notable "penury of English biography" before the work he was beginning; 2) that previous Cowley biographer Dr. Sprat was "an author whose pregnancy of imagination and eloquence of language have deservedly set him high in the ranks of literature"; 3) But "his zeal of friendship, or ambition of eloquence has produced a funeral oration more than a history: he has given the character, not the life of Cowley; for he writes with so little detail that scarcely anything is distinctly known, but all is confused and enlarged through the mist of panegyric."

So much, then, for old Sprat, whose title -- Dr. -- is preserved by Old Sam but not his first name (Thomas) which will forever be conveyed to us in the mist of footnotes, if at all. That's what happens when the man who is arguably the greatest critic in the English language wipes you off the table and onto the floor awaiting the next broom.

Johnson's "Lives of the Poets" is such a towering classic of English prose that it was axiomatic that it would sire imitations and variations. Two of the most recent were Michael Schmidt's mammoth "Lives of the Poets" from 1999 and William H. Pritchard's skimpy "Lives of the Modern Poets" from 1980.

Here, with its own hubris, is a variation on Sam high in hilarity and scandal and even higher in eccentricity, that purports to give us "a history of fiction in 294 lives."

Which is purest balderdash. But who the devil would care?

This is one of the most delightful books of its kind I know. And its very perversity is part and parcel of what makes it so very readable. Not only does the self-announced "history of fiction" only concern itself with fiction in the English language (say goodbye to Balzac, Hugo, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; kiss Cervantes and Kafka lightly on the cheek as you shove them out the door), but the list of those who make it into Sutherland's wildly entertaining gang of 294 is so willful and wild that it's downright demented.

All modern histories of the novel are "wormholes through the cheese," Sutherland says, merrily quoting William Gibson in another context. He then deadpans the following confession: "I do value a range of fiction that history has often, in my view, wrongly undervalued By the same token, some names -- including some great names -- are missing from this book."

I'll say. Sutherland -- an indefatigable British academic and journalistic sort with Victorian predilections -- will gladly leave out James T. Farrell, author of "Studs Lonigan," but include J.G. (James Gordon) Farrell, author of "The Siege of Krishnapur," a 1973 Booker Prize winner now being reissued with a Sutherland introduction.

And that, one might say, is a tiny hors d'oeuvre in this vast groaning board of critical nuttiness. Do not look for the following writers among those Sutherland awards thumbnail biographies: Tobias Smollett, Gore Vidal, Joyce Carol Oates, Eudora Welty, Bernard Malamud, Nelson Algren, Thomas Wolfe, Katharine Anne Porter, Sherwood Anderson, Jean Rhys, Richard Ford, Richard Wright, Carson McCullers, Edward Lewis Wallant, Henry Bellamann, Nevil Shute, Walker Percy, Leonard Michaels, Joseph Heller, Mario Puzo and Truman Capote.

OK. I know. That's quite a list. Take a minute to catch your breath. It's incomplete, to understate. And we've got a lot more stairs to climb.

Here are some of those who made it into Sutherland's Gang of 294: Jacqueline Susann, Georgette Heyer, Ayn Rand, Catherine Cookson, Herman Wouk, Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane, V.C. Andrews, Jennifer Dawson, B.S. Johnson, Wilbur Smith, Susanna Moodie, Vernor Vinge and Rana Dasgupta.

Wait. You say "let's backtrack." Let's have some more from the Victorian scholar's precious inclusions from earlier eras.

Why sure. Try Harriet Martineau, Harrison Ainsworth, Mrs. Gaskell, Fanny Fern, Henry Wood, Grace Aguilar, Maria Monk, Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Eliza Lynn Linton, Charlotte Yonge, Mary J. Holmes, etc. etc.

Enough already, you say, understanding the gender and genre points with which Sutherland is trying to bash you upside the head. (Personally, I wondered after Sutherland introduced me to Mrs. Southworth, if any novelist or poet in our language was ever known to posterity with five initials before getting to a surname. Mrs. S. was in the Gothic romance business and wrote, among others, "the most popular American novel since 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' (the) Gothic tale, 'The Hidden Hand.' " Her four initials preceding a last name would seem to set the record.)

Be assured that Sutherland doesn't spend all his time hauling three and four-name romancers in front of the curtain for encores. He spends a splendid amount of time being enormously witty and more than a little indecorous about all manner of great novelists, high, low and middle as well as muddled, middling and monstrous.

He has a fine old time telling you the original sources of that famous and shameless "cribber" John Steinbeck, "the most creatively absorbent of novelists: fictional blotting paper." He does, not-so-generously admit that the author of "In Dubious Battle," "Of Mice and Men," "East of Eden" and "The Grapes of Wrath" had a gift for "sonorous titles." But he has much more fun telling us about the time Hemingway broke over his own head a "blackthorn stick" Steinbeck had given John O'Hara, apparently to prove that the stick, like Steinbeck himself, was fake.

Mere pages later, we learn just how awful a drunk O'Hara was, thereby earning such common epithets as "oaf," "lout" and "brute." So too is Sutherland eager for us to remember that Frank Loesser, Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth notwithstanding in Hollywood musical history, the original O'Hara literary version of "Pal Joey" was "an unrepentant gang rapist."

Lord only knows what Samuel Johnson would have thought about Sutherland's "detailing" so much indiscretion and even degeneracy -- not to mention Sir Walter Scott who gave us a "Lives of the Novelists" in 1825.

But there is so much acute intelligence, wit and wisdom in this epic shlep through biographical vaudeville that scandal and outrage sit cheek by jowl with Freudian resonance and Johnsonian acuteness.

You want rumors that Jackie Susann "did some discreet high-paid call-girl work in the 1940s?" You got 'em. On the other hand, if you want to know the family chaos that gave the world that "light-fingered" literary genius Edgar Allan Poe, Sutherland is your man to give it to you straight and true and terse as can be. "An explorer, not an addict," Sutherland quotes Baudelaire about Poe, and agrees, while insisting on how little is really known about him.

On his final day on earth, Sutherland tells us, Poe wandered "the streets of Baltimore ranting deliriously, wearing someone else's clothes. He seemed to be calling out 'Reynolds.' (Unidentified.) One of his distant relatives who had been summoned took one look and refused to take charge of him."

Whatever else he may have thought, I think old Sam Johnson would be pleased that one of his descendants had written a reference book as engaging, shrewd, witty and irresistible to contemporary tastes as this one.

Jeff Simon is The News' Arts and Books Editor.

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Lives of the Novelists: A Short History of Fiction in 294 Lives

By John Sutherland

Yale University Press

818 pages, $39.95