cover image Billy


Whitley Strieber. Putnam Publishing Group, $19.95 (317pp) ISBN 978-0-399-13584-2

Strieber's latest (after Communion ) is by turns gripping, plodding, truly horrifying and, finally, falsely sunny. Fat, 40-ish Barton Royal, kiddy-clown in an L.A. bookstore, is obsessed with pubescent boys. He wants to be their ``father'' but when they turn against him he has a ``black room'' for their punishment. Seeing 12-year-old Billy Neary in an Iowa shopping mall, Barton is smitten. He follows the boy home, craftily and boldly abducts him and begins a nonstop drive to L.A. The book alternates scenes of the devastation wrought on Billy's family, a national manhunt, Billy's growing awareness of his peril and Barton's violent mood swings. We get chilling glimpses of Barton's past--he talks of skinning boys alive--and his plans for Billy. Bright, winning Billy is worn down almost to madness. Barton's tortured self-justification and Billy's brainy sweetness are believable but the other characters have much less depth. The bloody pater ex machina climax is followed by worse-than-expected revelations and an oddly upbeat finale that rings not quite true. (Aug.)