Peter Rand's first book, Firestorm , lived up to its name: it was a brilliant novel of yearning, betrayal, and self-understanding with the rush and compression of a Greek tragedy. In The Time of the Emergency , Rand's marvelous compact sentences still fall against each other like dominoes, but he has disjointed his narrative line into brief chapters and shifted his attention away from progressive action toward repetition and circularity. Although this results in a somewhat contrived fiction (it may be, as one character says, a mandala), The Time of the Emergency nonetheless builds up an overwhelming sense of menance as it explores the theme of psychic unity and imbalance.

Sensitive, dowdy Lucy Onstott presides over the Samarkand Hotel and three archetypal guests - the vital and impulsive Flame, the withdrawn, imaginative Wolf, and the pedantic but vigorous Professor. Lucy's avowed function is to preserve order and civilization, "to maintain the balances of life," during a time of unexplained emergency. Nevertheless, Lucy herself surrenders to long-repressed desires and gradually becomes the brazen, vulgar figure of Wolf's prophetic dreams. This transformation infects Lucy's three guests who also begin to reveal seemingly unnatural qualities of passivity, forceful action, and sickness. At this point apparently random leitmotifs coalesce and The Time of the Emergency accelerates toward a shattering climax in the canyon of the Lost Cities of the Palo Colorado. (Doubleday, $6.95)

Michael Dirda