By Edward Neuert

Published October 31, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

You shouldn't judge a book by its epigraph. Having said that, however, I note that the title page of William Kotzwinkle's new novel, "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," is scarier than most:

The bear went over the mountain
The bear went over the mountain
The bear went over the mountain
to see what he could see ...

This insubstantial nugget leads into, appropriately enough, an almost fiber-free novel about the soulless shell that is American book publishing. Kotzwinkle's hero is an affable bear who moseys out of the Maine woods one day and finds the manuscript of a novel hidden under a tree, where it's been ditched by a disillusioned English professor. Bear takes briefcase, reads novel, and likes it. And after stealing a suit of clothes and acquiring the name Hal Jam from a jar of one of his favorite foodstuffs, he sets off for the big city to find an agent, a publisher and perhaps a tasty pie or two. He gets all these in short order, along with a place on the bestseller list, movie deals and talk-show celebrity.

Kotzwinkle has assembled a cast of just the sort of characters you'd expect: a hyperkinetic public relations maven, a driven Hollywood agent, a shallow publisher -- none of whom has read more than the "coverage" of the book in question. There are few surprises in these characters, and fewer still in the plot. The book has much the same tension as Jerzy Kosinski's "Being There" -- will anyone notice Hal's true nature as he ascends the ladder of celebrity?

At the heart of "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" lies the framework of an interesting fable. But you can't help thinking that the great American fabulists of the past -- Mark Twain or George Ade, for example -- would have packed twice its pith into half its 300-page length. This is a novel that, while it satirizes the connection between Hollywood and the publishing world, is fully a product of that union. Kotzwinkle, who proudly lists the novelization of E.T. on his bio, and who scripted "Nightmare on Elm Street, IV," has already optioned the book's film rights to Jim Henson Productions. What you have here, surely not for the first or last time, is a novelization before the fact. Better to let Fozzy Bear add his interpretation and catch the whole thing on video.

Edward Neuert

Edward Neuert lives and writes in northern Vermont. He is a regular contributor to Salon Books.

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