THE SUBSTITUTION of the young male protagonist for the young female protagonist in the modern novel is a development that, I think, ranks right up there with the invention of the steering wheel on the roll call of the seminal ideas of transatlantic man. The reader may recall that when Samuel Richardson sat down and created his new art form, he placed a girl in the center of the stage. I don't mean to imply that he gave the matter a great deal of conscious thought or that he was driven by a bright vision of the future; I merely report what happened. His approach was simple and direct. The book was called Pamela -- no allegorical shilly-shallying here. Pamela was the name of the book, Pamela was the name of the girl and Pamela was, er, the name of the game. Perhaps this wasn't as good an idea as it seemed. Certainly Henry Fielding didn't think so, and he immediately proceeded to do something about it. Not only did he immediately riposte with a parody entitled Shamela -- to modern eyes, little distinguishable from the original, except that it's shorter -- but he boldly laid down the highroad to tomorrow with Tom Jones, thus setting matters straight. The trouble with the female protagonist resided in her limited uses; as Fielding instantly realized, there were remarkably few things you could do with a literary heroine in the 18th century, although the Marquis de Sade demonstrated that you could do those few things in an astonishing number of ways. With a lad in the novel's driver's seat, however, you could have all sorts of different kinds of fun. Interestingly, these masculine endeavors did not include the inspiration to human frailty provided by poor Pamela and her many descendants; literary rapes of male protagonists, however comely, however stupid, remain as rare as eyebrows on an egg to this day. As I said before, I'm only reporting this.

Time rolled on and with it Fielding's Tom, passing from pen to pen and name to name like an adventurous penny but never losing his purity of thought, word (well, maybe) and deed -- he has proved an amiable virgin, and a durable one. Every once in a while someone like Jane Austen or Henry James or Edith Wharton came along to suggest that the republic of letters was missing a good bet by ignoring the distaff side -- a good bet in the form of books about grown-ups rather than books about implausible kids -- but their imitators were as few as their detractors. (Though the greatest grown boy of them all, Theodore Roosevelt, did call James a disgusting snob, or some such thing.) Not even the 20th century could dim Tom's luster; it merely turned him into Paul Pennyfeather or Nick Adams or Joe Christmas and gave him more, if somewhat less pleasant, things to do. The subject, as ever, was innocence. The French novel began with the wedding; the American novel still ended with it.

Viewed in this light, Roderick MacLeish's agreeable novel, The First Book of Eppe, is both an avatar and an anachronism, a representative of a great tradition with all the dated charm of a buttonhook. It is as though MacLeish made a conscious study of the enduring elements of the Anglo-American novel, rather as one might study grammer, and then proceeded to see if he could make them work. The British novel usually starts in one of those hideous schools, for which the Americans are fond of substituting the prison or loony bin or a stint in the Marine Corps. Following graduation, the hero hits the road, circles around for a while, and blows back into town, whereupon some sort of Ragnarok usually occurs. (This is also a handy place to stop writing.) Justice is fleeting but usually done in the end, love is blind, and the boys still have all the fun. Sometimes there is a sidekick. He is provided for the purposes of color and counterpoint. For this reason, he is often of an entirely different race from the hero, and he is almost invariable smarter.

Well, all that is pretty much what Roderick MacLeish has gone and done. He has named his hero Sherborne Eppe. He has caused him to be imprisoned in a crazy house by his mother at the age of 17 and has released him seven years later. He then makes him go to work for a fence in Ohio, hooks him up with a monosyllabic black genius named Hannibal and compels him to fall in love over the telephone with a poet from Rhode Island. The rest of the book consists of Eppe's journey thither, pursued by the invisible minions of his wicked mom, who has reasons for wanting him back in the booby hatch. Along the way he pauses briefly -- like Huck Finn putting the raft ashore -- to set matters right in a river town and expose a charlatan in Pennsylvania. If he gets into any trouble, Hannibal gets him right out of it again. In the end . . . but Hannibal is around at the end, too.

Several things convince me that MacLeish has not committed a parody of his own, a mere lighthearted sendup of white male purity in an improbable world where all the women who don't have round heels are bitches, and all the colored folk exist only to serve. Chief among them are the seriousness and invention with which he has woven his engaging little fable, the genuine pathos of a dying 97-year-old man, for example, and a plow horse that faints. Moreover, he writes very well, even if he does think that "normalcy" is a word. Nothing much bad happens to anyone, and everyone gets more or less what he deserves. A mirror walking down the road of man it is not, but this sort of thing never is; a warm bath is closer to the mark, pleasant and good for the nerves (unless, of course, you happen to be either female or black, in which case you will probably feel rather differently). In this far from certain world, it is good to know that some fantasies never pass away.