In short, interlocking fictional pieces, Bette Howland serves up Chicago on the downside. Each sketch is narrated by the same woman from different points of her life: she is a grad student living on the tumultuous South Side; a divorcee with grown children and aging parents, an assistant librarian, a critical observer of Chicago life.

As an observer, she touches the raw spots of that "vast industrial plain" - the life of the working class ethnic poor, the inner-city criminal "justice" system, the violent changing of neighborhoods, racial tension, and most effectively, old people trying to cope with the city.

This is not just any big city, but Chicago. Howland gives a vivid portrayal of its singular character and grimness, creating a mood reminiscent of Andre Celine's Journey to the End of the Night.

The writer's perceptions of urban desolation are drawn around a chronicle of her own, working-class, Jewish family - a story dominated by a sense of unrewarded struggle. In Howland's extended family portrait, few of the parents live well, since they have sacrificed for their children's education. But few of the educated daughters want children - a choice at the source of the mothers' despair. And not one of the educated sons makes as much as Uncle Rudy, a Chicago cop. At the grandmother's funeral, in the last piece, the men allow the very tradition of the family to falter: "So my father was right after all. This was it. The end of the line. It was all over. The old woman's sons were not going to say kaddish for her. They didn't know how." The city wins.

It doesn't matter that Howland's style is uneven at times, or that the reader is left with few personal impressions of the characters: the writer shows emotional honesty. Blue is powerful in its observations and its unrelenting sadness. (Harper & Row, $8.95)

Richard Deutsch