In Louis Begley's latest novel, Shipwreck, an unidentified narrator is approached by a stranger who confides a story. The stranger turns out to be a novelist who, despite prizes and a movie sale, doubts the value of his life's work. As the author of About Schmidt a novel adapted into an Oscar-winning film Begley tempts readers to seek autobiographical elements in this adventuresome new work.

John North, the middle-aged novelist in Shipwreck, loves his wife Lydia and has always remained faithful to her. But on a visit to Paris, North becomes obsessed with LŽa, a vibrant young reporter who interviews him for Paris Vogue. He assuages his guilt by telling himself that having sex with LŽa will rejuvenate his art. The unnamed narrator functions as devil's advocate, asking what difference it could possibly make if North has a little fling. In the end, it makes quite a difference.

Begley draws North with care, divulging more and more about his past to make the startling finish to the novel believable. By the final pages you realize why this man can't stop talking and drinking his ambiguous actions have seared his soul. The narrator never really becomes clear as a separate individual, and it seems unlikely he would willingly listen to the recitation of this whole tale. Perhaps Begley means him as a doppelganger, an alter-ego of the author.

At one point in the book, North cleverly asks the narrator if he has read Joseph Conrad's Typhoon. The form of Shipwreck's narration suggests a Conrad novel, as do its questions of morality and its seafaring title. And, like Conrad, Begley is originally from Poland.

Begley's novel is more sexually explicit, of course, than anything in the work of the 19th century master, but there's more at stake here than erotic fantasies. This confessional tale isn't as simple as it seems, and North is never as straightforward as he appears. With his usual deft style, Begley does a masterful job of illuminating the philanderer's heart of darkness. Anne Morris is an Austin writer.

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