When a young writer of grace and intelligence turns to a structure inappropriate to his talent, a first novel like Refiner's Fire results, the problems of the form crippling the talent. This unbelievable Tom Jones tale, the life of a foundling from birth to maturity, ranges fron Harvard to Jamaica, from a Midwestern slaughterhouse to Middle Eastern slums. Helprin is attracted to set pieces and dramatic props (honorable death is a favorite), but the focus is all on complexity of detail, never something larger or cumulative. He has succumbed to exotic location, large cast, quirky characters, coincidence, and depthness chronology. The weakness of his short stories - melodrama and a reliance on locale for variety - have been emphasized, while the strengths - pointed tone and sure narrative - have been defeated by the encyclopedic scope.

Marshall pearl, the foundling, is never more than caricature. He is moved like a pawn - or, given his erratic course, a knight - toward a fate revealed to us in the opening pages. The most memorable scenes occur in a reality beyond reality: on a ghost shrimp-boat, in a nightmarish slaugherhouse where months pass in an evening, or on a midnight trip through the New York City sewers. A novel of those scenes might have the haunted power of One Hundred Years of Solitude , with an American tinge.

Helprin has tried to lick the picaresque novel on its own terms, but he does not succeed. The lavish waste of scenes and characters, any one of which might have powered Conrad through a whole book, reveals a desperation and lack of circumspection. I recommend his short stories, collected in A Dove of the East , which are more startling and honest than this overblown novel. Helprin is a writer potentially so good that he should not be encouraged to write airy popular nonsense. (Knopf, $10)

- William Logan