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A novel that doesn't live up to its cover

An Innocent Millionaire, by Stephen Vizinczey. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press. 370 pp. $17.95. Sage advice has always run: Don't judge a book by its cover. To which I would add: nor by its liner notes or ``critical endorsements'' -- even when they're encomiums from writers such as Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess. The former claims Stephen Vizinczey's novel ``An Innocent Millionaire'' has ``the best funny scene'' this side of Evelyn Waugh. That alone kept me reading. I couldn't find it.

The gist of the novel is that a boy suffers through the ignominy of cultured poverty in Western Europe with his father, a struggling American actor, and his mother, a beautiful cipher.

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The boy manages to learn five languages and gets it into his head that treasure from a sunken ship is all he needs to cure his family's and the world's woes.

Would I spoil this novel by giving away more of its plot? Hardly. He grows up, finds the treasure, and is fleeced by con men and legal sharks far more dangerous than the hammerheads he bumps into while diving in the Bermudas. Actually, the dialogue between the shyster lawyers is fairly amusing. Perhaps that's what Greene had in mind.

Greene divided his own fiction into ``novels'' and ``entertainments.'' Vizinczey's novel fits the latter category, a kind of ``World According to Garp'' with mindless violence and mating among the jet set. A pity, because Vizinczey, a Hungarian forced to leave his country after the failed 1956 revolution, has also written a wry, incisive book of essays entitled ``The Rules of Chaos.'' I can and do recommend it.

Kenneth Harper teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside campus.

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