MARGE PIERCY's strong, complex yet lucid political, novel is a flame-opus, not soap-opera, saved from being the latter by its incandescence. This writer's central excellence has always been her energy, but with each book the energy has been channeled more skillfully; the random brush fires of her much earlier political novel, Dance the Eagle to Sleep , have become in this book more of a fire show: sometimes the explosion of a grenade, sometimes the flow of an oil lamp in a New England farm house, sometimes sparks from the friction of IRT subway wheels or the friction of pasison between men and women or women and women, sometimes a vertiable son et lumiere of the '60s and '70s.

Vida, nee Davida Asch, known also as Vinnie, Cynthia, Peregrine (and probably other names I cannot remember), a central member of a Weatherman-type group, SAW, is a fugitive because of her involvement in anti-war bombinbs during the '60s. She must constantly change names, adopt disguises, find "safe" housing, communicate with friends and relatives at prearranged days and hours via pay phones, get money from her husband and others who have remained in, or moved back into the establishment, and keep trying to formulate and effect meaningful political activity with others in the fugitive network.

The first quarter of the book is set in the present. Vida, fleeing New York, goes to a "safe" house on the Cape and meets another fugitive, Joel, an Army deserter, younger than she and less experienced at the underground life. Their relationship becomes the sustaining one for both of them, one of growing love and tenderness. The action then moves back to 1967, focusing on the SAW group of activists: their couplings and uncouplings, political fights and euphorias, plans and actions, and their undoing by betrayal. Seesawing back and forth between the '60s, early '70s and the present, the narrative tension builds to a fititng end for a flame-opera, addressing the question: can a woman (not from "a little mining town" but from a big city) survive, keep her sanity and, even, find happiness as a fugitive? The book ends with partial answers not, thank heavens, with definitive closure.

Here, edited so as not to spoil the very real suspense by revealing the conclusion, are portions of the final paragraphs:

"But she still had Natalie. Herself. Eva. Work. Her history, her political intent, her ability to cause trouble . . . She stopped abruptly and pulled the bag of bagels out of her rucksack and threw them in a trash can. She could not bear the smell; she could not bear the hope they leaked in fragrance . . . . One thing I know is that nothing remains the same. No great problems in society have been solved, no wounds healed, no promises kept except that the rich shall inherit . . . . Two steps forward and a half back. I will waste none of my life."

To return to Piercy's growth as a fiction writer, contrast this with the last paragraph of Dance the Eagle to Sleep:

"Marcus quickly sped through the six baby books to make sure he had forgotten nothing he must do. Shawn felt useless and yet full of energy and light, a turned on bulb, a ridiculous helium-filled balloon. The baby lived and she lived and it was a day for Marcus and for him. It was day for all of them."

Closure with trumpets! The "turned on bulb" is the cartoon symbol for an idea; Piercy's political ideas were often simplistically cartooned in her early books. Though never as blatantly as Doris Lessing, she tended to insert clots of political message into her narratives. She no longer does. In Vida, , the politics of power, peace, sexuality, women are intrinsic. No easy answers are proposed. Sometimes, indeed, the pairing of sex and politics seems stuck between reality and metaphor in a way which so avoids assigning meaning that the connections are suspect. Both areas are charged enough, but the author sometimes attempts to supercharge them by mating them. The effect is similar to that in Wertmuller movies, most particularly Love and Anarchy where one keeps waiting for the political/sexual metaphor to become clear and it never does. Nevertheless, I welcome this book's complexities: solutions are struggled for in a way which not only illuminates but makes the reader think and feel.

The '60s portions of Vida are hard going; it's difficult to keep the characters -- particularly the men who seem mostly sexual objects and pursuers -- straight. At first I felt impatient with the confusions. But as the book progressed it became clear that Piercy was accurately portraying a time in which genuine idealism often led to interaction that became increasingly depersonalized and mechanistic. What initially felt like irritation at having to struggle to remember who was who probably was disappointment at being reminded that people struggling toward admirable goals are not necessarily admirable themselves. These sections are inflammable -- inflammatory; they cause inflammation of the spirit. This, I believe, is what Piercy intends. The later sections are flammable: they smolder, catch fire, fuel the story of the phoenix named Vida Asch.