BOOK REVIEW / On the secretive side: The Partisan - Benjamin Cheever: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 15.99

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JONAS COLLINGWOOD, the hero of Benjamin Cheever's second novel, is a distinguished but under-recognised writer. The author of no less than 18 novels, including the Updikean Agricola, Agricolae, he lives in Westchester County, upstate New York, together with his long-suffering wife, Elspeth, and his two adopted children, Nelson and Narcissus Ballard.

On the face of it, this book is about issues of literary and genetic authenticity. Are Jonas's novels really based on his experience with the Italian partisans during the Second World War, or are they pure invention? Are Nelson and Narcissus really - as their adoptive parents insist - the unwanted offspring of a high school major and an auto-mechanic, or are they more intimately connected than they realise to the man they call 'Uncle'?

The narrative begins with Collingwood's 18th novel, My Life as a Woman, receiving belated recognition in the International Herald Tribune. The article contends that his novels have all been thinly veiled autobiography, that he is in fact a great tough-guy in the Hemingway mould. This Collingwood does nothing to deny, as reporter after reporter arrives at the house to interview him and solicit pearls of his idiosyncratic wisdom.

Along with the reporters comes a deeply unpleasant Ivy League media-cum-literary type whose designs on the eponymous 'partisan' are both venal and meretricious. As the narrative unfolds, the destinies of the four family members become deviously intertwined with the entrails of Collingwood's literary reputation.

Our version of these events is provided by the son, Nelson, a lovelorn 20-year-old film major at NYU who has a wiseacre's take on the follies of the techno-crazed modern world and who comes from a long line of knowing, adolescent narrators in American fiction. It is Nelson who is responsible for dealing with Jonas's chaotic literary affairs and mediating between the self-willed members of his odd family.

And that's where problems with The Partisan arise, for while I was happy enough to enjoy the in-jokey acerbity of the Collingwoods' exchanges, I couldn't help feeling that it was all a little too cutesy. Jonas is of that well-established literary type, the crotchety, libertarian, American paterfamilias, given to sassy and irreverent observations: 'I don't take local streets because I'm afraid of being killed on the highways . . . I take them because when I drive on the highways for any distance I feel like I've already died and am being punished.' He also has a nice descriptive urge; his children are 'fire sale babies', and the unborn child of a collaborator during the war is termed 'a Nazi in pupa stage'.

Jonas despises money, drives an ancient Ford, is derisive about the pretensions and peccadilloes of the powerful - a little reminiscent of Allie Fox in Paul Theroux's novel The Mosquito Coast and of a host of John Irving characters. The trouble is that his rebellion is both too anodyne and too bourgeois (not having a television) to justify the admiration his family have for him.

When Jonas accepts a commission to write a non-fiction memoir of his wartime experiences in order to pay off his sister-in-law Lily's tax debts, it transpires that his and Lily's relationship to the 'adoptive' children is far more partisan than we had been led to believe. The novel ends with revelations concerning both life and literature.

This is a well written and engaging novel with plenty of pace, but the red herrings are perhaps a little too red for this reader, and I wasn't entirely convinced of the importance of all the points Cheever seems to be making. Read it for the author's own turn of phrase, which can be both delicate and amusing, rather than for the more weighty pronouncements of his protagonists.