WE MUST SEPARATE the writer from his or her fictional hero. This is a first rule of literary judgment. Joshua Shapiro is the hero. He is a writer. "He calls himself a writer," someone says. When he was very young he wrote a mildly famous book about the Spanish Civil War. "In those days Markham was going to be a novelist -- as who wasn't, Joshua thought, grieving." The thing that is saddest about Joshua is not that he never became a novelist, famous or otherwise, but that he never became even quietly or privately either a good writer or a serene man. In his mature or anyhow middle years he is filled with self-loathing. "Once . . . it had been his life's ambition to write something that would last. A page. A paragraph. A sentence, even. Now aged 47 and counting, as sportswriters were fond of saying, he stood tall for his morning piss and noticed, much to his chagrin, that looking down he couldn't quite see his own penis."

Joshua did become famous as a star of personality on Canadian television, for which he had contempt. "Anybody good on camera was an abomination to him, yet he owned his reputation to television."

Mordecai Richler, on the other hand, according to his publisher, "is generally considered Canada's most important writer (twice winner of the Governor General's Award), but has an equally impressive reputation in England and the United States. He is one of the four judges of the Book-of-the-Month Club." All right, now I am clear that Joshua Shapiro cannot be Richler, and I am glad. Here is a book in which viewpoint is os perfectly rendered, so exquisitely pure, that the author successfully places himself at an invisible distance.

This leaves Joshua exposed, and the trouble may be that it's Joshua I don't like. I find it difficult to root for him. I don't like him. He is one of those people who reviews books to slam writers -- "scabrous reviews, outbidding everybody in invective." He reminds me of many hustling, fraudulent, self-deceiving writers I have met over the years. They give the trade a bad name. "Ripping a short story with a twist in its tail from Collier's , he rewrote it, setting it in Calgary, and sent it off to the Toronto Star Weekly with a cover letter saying he was a struggling Canadian artist, who simply refused to sell his proud heritage for a fistful of Yankee dollars."

Writers like Joshua lose their moral grasp. The pranks of boyhood are crimes when men commit them. Joshua instructs his friend Murdoch how to live on nonexistent credit. The passage is amusing if you find it so, and there are others, for Richler at his best is sprightly, crisp, crackling, good at cataloguing things.

When the pranks of boyhood bear consequences in the mature (anyhow later) years I become sick inside watching it happen. Joshua's desperation produces calamity. "'Wait. Hold it. I think I've got a better idea,'" Joshua said to his friend Murdoch, "beaming . . . with drunken benevolence. 'You and I, Sydney, might just be able to earn a tidy sum in the great state of Texas if you are willing to engage in a vile, salacious homosexual correspondence with me. Sickeningly explicit.'" Sure, Murdoch is willing. Afterward these letters are made public by someone else, and because Joshua is a famous television star he now becomes more famous still. Yet it was all a hoax. Joshua was never a homosexual. Why then was he wearing on a certain occasion "black satin panties with . . . delicate lace trim"?

Joshua appears to be very confused at this point, and so am I. "Although Shapiro," says his fictional antagonist, "could not be reckoned a writer of the first rank, he had written a book of some significance on the Spanish Civil War and was considered by many to be a sporting journalist of note." This is a fair, just, correct analysis of Joshua by Richler. Richler is also considered by many people to be a sporting journalist of note, as well as a novelist.

This is his first novel in nine years, a masterpiece of imitative form, resplendent with every imaginable failure of characterization, relevance, style, or grammar; loaded with gratuitous obscenity, genital prurience, pointless melodrama, disconnected anecdotage; it contains a very large cast of unrealized people -- exactly the novel poor wretched Joshua would write if he could gather himself together long enough for sustained work.