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DRAWING CLOSE TO A MAN WHO WROTE ON THE WILD SIDE

THE QUEST FOR GRAHAM GREENE
By W.J. West
St. Martin's
286 pages, $24.95

Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things.

The honest thief, the tender murderer,

The superstitious atheist . . .

-- Greene's epigraph for his novels, from "Bishop Blougram's Apology"
In this new volume, the third such attempt at a Greene biography in recent years, W.J. West is supposed to have "unearthed and pieced together all-new material regarding Graham Greene, which sheds light into the darker regions of Greene's personal, religious, financial and international affairs." Perhaps.

One step backward: Professor Norman Sherry was "approved" as his official biographer by Greene in the early 1970s, an honor one wouldn't think would bode well for Sherry. But by all accounts, Sherry is said to have done pretty well with his two-volume life. He hasn't offended anyone or gone overboard. Regrettably, "overboard" is where one probably ought to look for the real Greene. "The dangerous edge of things" leads that way more often than not.

West has put a tentative oar in the water in this direction. But West's work is not even "A Sort of Life," which is what Greene titled his own autobiography, written in later years.

Author West is like a dodgy old uncle who remembers some long-ago particulars with great clarity, but generally doesn't give a clear picture of the larger reality, the author's life. West plumbs Greene's shallows -- and the author certainly has some -- for the flotsam and jetsam of a life, self-admittedly wasted outside his fiction. West is enjoyably gossipy as he associates personalities with novels, identifying influences, prototypes and the settling of old grudges.

I have plowed through the hedgerows and thickets of two of these volumes, Michael Sheldon's and W.J. West's efforts, and have found precious little "light." Their quarry, among all modern writers, has surely left more false clues and trails than anyone else. Greene's existence (1904-1991) was a netherworld, and he apparently liked it that way.

In "Graham Greene: The Enemy Within," Sheldon made the author out to be a bad egg, a duplicitous, conniving sexual snake and a liar. Sheldon claimed that Greene cultivated the virtue of disloyalty as a badge of honor. West, who trails his hero like a lap dog, is a more forgiving biographer than Sheldon. West says:

When I visited Friends House in August 1996 I had no idea that I was actually following in Greene's footsteps; later I was to read in his diaries in Texas that he had once attended a reception there. It was one of the many occasions when I found I had unknowingly followed him, walking through the same doors, standing in the same rooms, perhaps even asking the same questions.

How thrilling for West. Had his model been Jesus of Nazareth or Thomas More, I could understand the adulation. But what large truth has West come to; what has he determined? Just this:

Greene's struggle to find the human face of communism and reconcile it with the Catholic faith was to dominate his life. He had already found the revolutionary face of Catholicism in Ireland . . . but that had been speedily replaced by the need to find a good Catholic woman to marry.

I suppose that Greene would get a good chortle out of this, although to a degree, it is true. In the early 1920s, Michael Collins was his hero in standing up against the English. Greene was for a short time a Communist while at Oxford in the early twenties. He had already spied for Germany -- later marking up the assignment as just a good way to earn some extra money while traveling on the continent.

One gets the idea that our man in Havana, Paraguay, Spain, Panama, Russia, Ireland, Mexico, Liberia, Kenya and elsewhere didn't worry about putting too fine a point on anything. Fiction was his larger truth, and he embellished this theme in a broader way in a late book dealing with Haiti, "The Comedians." One character, Magiot, the honest doctor, writes: "Communism, my friend, is more than Marxism, just as Catholicism . . . is more than the Roman Curia. There is a mystique as well as a politique."

In the saddest commentary about his life, Greene writes in old age:

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.