A paw in the money pot

DJ Taylor growls at the literary racket; The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle, Black Swan, pounds 6.99

To anyone bent on writing a comic novel, the world of publishing must seem a target soft to the point of fluffiness. Manic agents and their vainglorious clientele, sour chairmen, scatty publicity girls: all these are to the modern media expose what clergymen were to Trollope or Coleoptera to Kafka. Their originals appear in Anthony Powell's What's Become of Waring? (1939); the modern publishing savant could be forgiven for thinking that nobody has improved on this template in 60 years.

Given the existence of so many stifling archetypes (nearly all of which get an airing in The Bear Went Over The Mountain), it's a measure of William Kotzwinkle's creative powers that his protagonist - the tyro dispatched to cut a satirical swath through the editorial hutches of Madison Avenue - should not be a human being but a bear out of the Maine woods. The route to celebrity taken by "Hal Jam" (the name emerges when the bear muses over the jar labels in his local diner and elides a letter or two) starts when he snaffles a briefcase left under a tree by a college professor and discovers the manuscript of a novel called Destiny and Desire.

Though untravelled in the byways of modern writing, the bear is impressed by a concoction of elemental landscapes and sex-beneath-mighty-oaks that seems only a fir cone away from David Guterson's Snow Falling On Cedars or Nicholas Evans's The Horse Whisperer. Decamping to the big city, he is picked up by a neurotic agent, published in glistening covers by a hot imprint and soon acclaimed by impressionable literati as the new Hemingway.

After which, of course - and no disrespect to Mr K - any astute reader could fashion the plot himself. As Hal takes New York by storm, has his handful of gnomic utterances ("Sugar!") lauded by chat-show hosts as exemplary backwoods wisdom, gets seduced by a predatory agent ("You're like an animal in bed") and even saves the vice-president from an assassination attempt ("My territory!" he explains to startled security men), no comic possibility stays unexplored. Predictably, the jokes (often very funny) turn on basic misunderstandings, as when Hal haltingly explains the provenance of his mega-seller ("I wanted his meat ... He left it under a tree") to a gay editor increasingly convinced that the bear's subject is male sexuality.

Back in the boondocks, the professor's life is undergoing a reversal. His job forgotten, and the literary ambitions previously stoked by visits to weird neighbours set aside, he ends up hibernating in a cave. Stirred out of his torpor by the discovery that his book now heads the best-seller chart, he mounts an unsuccessful plagiarism suit. Hal, who by this stage has purchased an English title and is styling himself Lord Overlook, goes off to bask in the glory of a White House reception.

All this is retailed with effortlessly twinkling good humour, a touch too well-mannered for its own good. For all its satisfying rebukes of transatlantic idiocy, you put the novel aside wishing Kotzwinkle had chased after more deserving quarry. As I write, the staff of HarperCollins are quaking behind their word processors at the news that a man in a duplex 3,000 miles away - a man who regards a book simply as a lump of merchandise - is thinking of unloading them on to some other multinational predator. In sniggering at dim-witted publicity hacks and editorial narcissists rather than the corporate morons who control them, The Bear Went Over The Mountain eventually files itself under "missed opportunity".

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