A sly, sexy, fable-like exploration of the wavering line between art and commerce, following a writer as he tries to work himself out of poverty by cranking out pornography. Fear, a gifted, spendthrift, outrageous poet and novelist, given to drinking bouts and fleeting affairs, is living in Paris and down on his luck when his exasperated (and alluring) bank manager, Madame JaffrÇ, suggests that he produce something “commercial. . . erotic perhaps,” to bail himself out of his considerable debt. It’s not only the bank that he owes: There’s also Harm, a thug waiting with increasing impatience for the $10,000 Fear has borrowed and neglected to pay back. Worst of all, Fear feels numb, “as if his senses had been switched off.” In an attempt both to meet his debts and to climb back toward some sort of emotional sanity, Fear begins to write. He bases his novel on a girl from the neighborhood of Pigalle with whom he spent one remarkable night. She confided to him then that she was hopelessly in love with an airline pilot. Britisher Lane, the author of one previous novel published here, Still Life with Books (not reviewed), weaves long passages from Fear’s novel about the “Girl from Pigalle” and her pilot lover into his own present narrative. Fear’s book is, in fact, sweetly sexy, and his struggle to puzzle out how to write about sex allows Lane to muse over the difficulties of describing desire. Fear also discovers that, without his conscious knowledge, a book that began as a cynical means to generate money has taken on a life of its own, becoming, by virtue of its honesty and fascination with character, a work of art. As much about the peculiar alchemy of art and the similarities between art and desire as it is about a hapless character, Lane’s slender meditation is penetrating, witty, and provocative. A deft, winning performance.