A PUCKISH NEW YORK judge once called the ordinary man"that problem child of the law." Ordinary men and women often seem like problem children of American fiction, as well -- embarrassing poor relations writers don't understand or really want to deal with except in caricature and outline.

The Dogs of March solves this problem -- if problem it is -- brilliantly. This first novel, set in the author's native New Hampshire, chronicles a season in the life of a factory worker who must confront the hostility of the economic system and of his neighbors. Herbert tells a story which is a triumph of spirit, skill, and imagination, a moving and oddly optimistic view of our times and of the lives of a group of people caught in a commonplace -- but nonetheless painful and important -- situation.

Howard Elman, protagonist of TheDogs of March , is a semi-literate foreman in a textile factory, who believes that "a man's mind is like a good engine -- you can't improve it by souping it up with books. Oh, it may look better, sound better, run faster; but it won't run longer, and it will break down when you least expect it."

As the story unfolds, Elman loses his job, fall out with his upwardly mobile son Freddy, and battles against a willful millionaire who is determined to move his farmhouse -- and his beloved junk cars and trucks -- out of the view from her new vacation retreat. Howard loses some of his battles; by book's end, he has lost both Freddy and his daughter Heather to the world of the educated middle class. But he has won some others: "He had his land, such as it was, and he had his revenge, such as it was and he had some wisdom about the world, such as it was, and he had paid the price."

Hebert leads us into Howard's mind -- "confined in the hard, jagged walls of his illiteracy" -- with impressive authority; never does he condescend or caricature, and we come to care about Howard as Hebert plainly does. But if the character of Howard Elman were the only success of his marvelous book, it would be a mere technical success, a hollow four de force. The Dogs of March succeeds as well as it does because the author can go with equal ease into the minds of all his characters -- Howard's pious wife Elenore, his estranged son Freddy, his meddlesome antagonist Zoe Cutter, and her fatuous political ally, Selectman Harold Flagg.

He sees them all with pitiless calrity and affection. The result is not only a knowing picture of small-town life, but a human stroy in which each page offers some new insight into the human mind and heart.

Despite a final hunting sequence that may prove to brutal and graphic for some readers, The Dogs of March is an optimistic novel, ending with a rebirth for Howard, a happy realization that the best years may lie ahead of him, not behind: "A good man was by turns old and young." It is also a religious fable: Elenore, troubled with circulatory problems and varicose veins, offers her legs to God if He will help the family through its time of trouble; with the capriciousness of divinity, God accepts. At the end, she watches the world from her wheelchair and concludes that "her prayers had, for the most part, been answered. Life had changed and settled, So be it."

This book renews my faith in the fictional imagination. For if the novel as a form has any usefulness at all, it is precisely as a means of celebrating the importance of people, especially ordinary people -- reminding readers that apparent differences, of speech or manner or class, are far less important than their shared humanity.

Hebert's unsentimental vision is strong enough to convince me that Elenore's bargain, is not, on its face, a bad one: that all triumph, all growth, is also loss. That Hebert can pull it off is an achievement far transcending technique. The Dogs of March is a book for all those who care about novels -- or about other people.