Half-Baked

Half Moon Street By Paul Theroux Houghton Mifflin; 219pp: $14.95.

A FEW YEARS BACK, Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell called attention to what he termed a major contradiction in modern life--one that he felt could eventually not away at the very foundation of western society. He described in various books and articles a type of personality that has become increasingly familiar: men and women who, as he puts it, are managers by day and swingers by night. Since then, contemporary observers have been intrigued, if not worried, by this corruption of the Protestant work ethic whereby hard driven men and women leave their offices at night for the self indulgent lifestyle of the singles bar.

This fascination has infected writers, too, prompting them to produce works of fiction in which the unsavory and licentious invades the lives of outwardly respectable people. Noted travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux uses a variation on this theme of a double life as a launching pad for the two novellas that make up Half Moon Street. What follows, however, can by no means be called a smooth flight.

Chief among the book's failings is the author's inability to rise above the sordid details of his characters' lives and provide the reader with at least a glimpse of the motives behind the deviant behavior. Those interested in a fictional handling of this cultural schizophrenia would do better to turn back to an earlier work, Judith Rossner's sensitive, albeit sensational, Looking for Mr. Goodbar--or else wait for a treatment more skilled than Theroux's.

"I'm the sort of healthy open-minded girl that people used to call nymphomaniac," says Lauren Slaughter, the whimsical heroine of the first novella, "Dr. Slaughter". It doesn't exactly have the ring to it that "Call me Ishmael" does; but our these lines Theroux hangs his tale. Lauren has recently arrived in London from the States to work for a global think tank. After a few months at the institute, she receives a videotape from some unknown sender designed to recruit young women for an escort service. Bored at her research post and eager for some excitement, she decides to give the Jamine Agency a try.

What follow is 100 pages, 99 too many, describing the seamier side of Lauren's double life. Her work after hours takes her into the nighttime dens of London's healthy Arabs and the hotel rooms of travelling businessmen, some of whom are merely looking for companionship others for an erotic toy. Theroux details her daily outline, a seven mile run around Hyde Park in the morning, seminars and papers at the institute, and Karim or Salim at night, while the reader can't help but wonder when this girl is going to get some sleep.

About the only instance of emotion breaking up this catalogue of bedroom antics is the tenderness that develops between Lauren and a client, an English lord who carries some diplomatic post. But the sense of imminent doom that hovers over the narrative is finally realized when it turns out that the people who set Lauren up with Lord Bullbeck wanted to use her as bait to trap the man. Theroux concludes the story with a rush of abductions, escapes, and assassinations more confusing than exciting.

At the end of "Dr. Slaughter" we find Lauren on a plane heading home, with a few hundred dollars, an overused body and the humbling realization that the London she so wanted to experience wasn't such a charming place after all. The reader can salvage a cruel irony The reader can salvage a cruel irony from this haphazard flow of events: for all her sexual exploits. Lauren remains a sort of Jamesian character, an innocent abroad, too naive and unsuspecting to see the web of intrigue in which she's been tangled.

IN THE BOOK'S second story, "D. DeMarr" Gerald DeMarr is reunited at his Boston home with his two George, after 20 years of separation. The first part of the novella consists of a flashback in which Gerald recalls how throughout his youth, he and his brother had struggled for their independence from each other. Now, feeling his sense of freedom once again threatened, Gerald takes off for a week at the Cape.

When he returns, he finds George dead from a drug overdose. Slowly, he retraces the steps of his brother's life only to discover that while posing as a physician, George was in fact a pusher. Gerald soon finds himself embroiled in the drug underworld that killed his brother and spells the same fate for him in the end, Gerald "saw that George had been right. They only had one life, and it meant one thing--the same life, the same death." Unfortunately, the story depends on a surprise ending which fails to produce the desired effect.

The major flaw of Half Moon Street is that it falls between two genres. The stories possess neither the sophisticated technique that would make them interesting pieces of fiction nor the right amount of tension that goes into a thriller. The narratives of both pieces progress in a linear fashion with few internal monologues or hints at the characters' motivations. As a result, the figures remain two dimensional. Ordinarily, this could be compensated for with exciting plots and suspense, but these ingredients are nowhere to be found. Here, the surprise endings are rushed and flat and do not allow enough time for irony and flat and do allow enough time for irony and revelation. The book, in short, is half-baked.

One would have hoped that Theroux would bring the descriptive skills he has demonstrated in books such as The Patagonia Express or The Great Railway Bazaar to this new work of fiction. Unfortunately, because of its insipid plots and shallow characters, Half Moon Street will likely not enjoy the same wide readership Theroux's previous books have.