WHAT HAPPENS to a writer such as E.L. Doctorow when a novel such as Ragtime sells 220,000 copies in hardback, gets translated into 20 languages, and wins the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction? A writer of a certain kind would merely try to duplicate these lush results as quickly as possible. A writer who is more serious must risk or perish. Everything about Doctorow's career to date indicates that he considers the novel a vehicle for social and moral commentary as well as an art form which should stretch the author's resources to their limits. But success on the Ragtime scale in America almost automatically makes it more difficult for a writer to take himself seriously, partly because other, less successful writers begin to discount him. Post-romantic inverse snobbery attached to sales figures is still with us. Does 220,000 hardback copies really mean you're a schlock artist? Then there are all those critics gunning from the shrubberies. You've walked Niagara Falls on a tightrope once, but can you do it again?

This is not a metaphysical problem. It's one of the facts of life and writing in America today, and it's demoralized more than one good writer. Doctorow is not one to shirk it: You can almost hear the gritting of his teeth as he charges it head-on. It's no accident that Loon Lake has odd punctuation , excerpts of freeish verse written by one of the characters and passages jumpcut so that the reader has to figure out who's talking and what the time frame is. It's no accident, in other words, that Loon Lake would be regarded as "experimental" if it weren't by the author of Ragtime . It's a sad commentary on the state of publishing as well, that if it weren't by the author of Ragtime most commercial publishers would have rejected it as too literary. That Doctorow's verbal acrobatics by no means exclude involvement suggest that the line between "literature" and "entertainment" is one drawn by publishers rather than writers.

It's also no accident that one of thecentral motifs of Loon Lake is the fascination of success for those who aren't successful and the corrosive, dehumanizing effects of it on those who are. The central character is a young man who calls himself Joe Paterson, because the name he inherited from his sad-sack, hunky father is unpronounceable. In any case he's dismissed his working-class parents -- poor, dispirited, "all dried up" -- and is looking for better ones. He's another Jay Gatsby or ishmael, named-change and all, that perennial willed orphan by which American fiction is so heavily populated, running away in search of his fate, an elusive woman, and America, which in this tradition are usually the same thing. He goes by boxcar rather than ship, as Loon Lake is set for the most part during the Depression. Captain Ahab is played by a captain of industry named Bennett, who owns almost everything anybody in the book works for, walks on or comes in contact with, including a piece of organized crime and a number of souls. The zanies and prophets are rolled into one, failed poet Warren Penfield, who set out to kill Bennett but ends up living at his Loon Lake Adirondacks estate as a drunken kept fool. (So much for the arts in America, owned and emasculated by capitalism, we suppose.) The White Whale has dwindled into a half-witted animalistic carnival Fat Lady, who is rented out sexually after hours. Instead of being harpooned she is raped to death by a mob, for money, of course. Like Nature, she's undiscriminating; she accepts all comers, as it were, and for this Joe Paterson rather applauds her than otherwise.

A comparison with Moby Dick may seem excessive, but that's the league Doctorow is playing in. Loon Lake can also be seen as an odd cross between The Great Gatsby (there's even a moon-beam-colored, visionary Daisy, though from the wrong side of the tracks) and The Grapes of Wrath (there's even a Roseasharn). It's the point at which wealth and poverty, privilege and servility, ambition and economic necessity, social prestige and the criminal underbelly of America intersect that fascinates Doctorow. Who's in bed with whom concerns him, both literally and figuratively, and sexual encounters carry more than romantic weight. You can't take off your social class with your clothes, and "possession," for Doctorow, is more than a figure of speech. The only woman in the book who isn't a victim never sleeps with anyone. Instead she's a famous aviatrix, and rich enough to be able to afford indifference. Perferable, it seems, as the sexually functional women in the book don't seem to get a lot out of it. Men fall in love with them, true but as wispy symbols rather than people. They in turn use their sexuality to get things and are therefor usable. If this makes you uncomfortable, you can always choose to view it as period realism, which it probably is.

Joe Paterson has energy, ambition and vision of himself that demands success. Billionaire Bennett and poetic Penfield are his spiritual fathers; on some level, the thuggish, calculating immigrant survival-artist, the sloppy romantic visionary, and the man who runs America by squeezing blood out of everyone else are closely related. At first Paterson doesn't know how to use his potential: Shall he side with the workers, from whom he springs, against Bennett, whom he envies and hates? Or would that mean defeat, a life of no more than grim endurance, like that of his parents? Paterson's moral dilemma is America's and the options are limited. You can be oppressed, like the mine and factory workers Doctorow renders so tellingly, dupes of company finks, criminals and uncaring capital; you can be a moonstruck escapist, like Penfield; or you can be Bennett. "I had expected not to like F. W. Bennett," Joe muses. "But he was insane. How could I resist that? There was this manic energy of his, a mad light in his eye. He was free! That was what free men were like, they shone their freedom over everyone."

There are many brilliant parts in Loon Lake : It's one verbally dazzling solo performance after another. The period detail is lovingly done, and the physical presence of both people and places is evocative and solid. I have a quibble about the loons, which are made to do things no loon I've been familiar with has ever done (loons are not cormorants or seagulls), but apart from that I willingly suspended disbelief. Until the end of the book, that is. The publisher's blurb says that the ending "resolves the mystery of Joe's life and snaps the earlier sequences into perfect, inevitable order." Well, not quite. Doctorow's reach just slightly exceeds his grasp. He's one of the most courageous and interesting writers around, and it's hard to imagine him writing anything lacking in courage and interest. But though his eye is on the big picture, the reader has to deal with the somewhat maddening sensation of scrabbling around for a few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle lost down the back of the sofa. Loon Lake anatomizes America with insight, passion and inventiveness, but it leaves us with a small nagging doubt as to whether it really is more than the sum of its parts.