"SLOW DOWN: You are entering the land of Rip Van Winkle" reads a sign in the Catskill Mountains on a morning in 1932, where a troubled, immensely talented composer named Andrew Spector and his loving, condescending older brother head toward a family gathering.

The sign is barely regarded by the protagonist of Sanford Friedman's remarkable tale of art and life, but the reader must eventually take it as a warning on entering a profound and problematic fictional region. It is indeed the reader, rather than Andrew Spector ("spectral and observing man"?), who is led to reenact the awakening to a later time of Washington Irving's fabulous sleeper, and to move from the highway of novelistic naturalism into the high woods of post-Hawthorian fable, reentering the realm of realistic narrative, and the time of our own history, after a gap of nearly 40 years.

Andrew Spector suffers from a loss of primary power, Sinecured in the family business, painfully slow to compose his music, he has lost a child -- his second son -- and suffered a sexual impotence which prevents him from begetting another. Known as an American composer of great promise, he has been unable to move ahead (the particular abortive project being a score for a Martha Graham-like choreographer with whom he had previous worked). On this July Fourth weekend in the Catskills he is surrounded by the kind of painful and extravagant family operatics which Sanford Friedman has handled so well in his three previous novels. Erotic, progenitive and creative incapacity dance about him, aiding and standing for one another, while the rhetoric of purported reasonableness and unacknowledged pain of a semi-enlightened Jewish family allows of no silences. Escaping from unbearable inner and outer confrontations, Andrew wanders up into the wild hills, away from any world he or we could know.

The entire central episode occupies a poetic domain of origins and sources. Whether that region is itself the interior space of Andrew's own sleeping or waking dream, or an external one of the kind mapped in science fiction and quest romance, we are not told, nor need we be. It is sufficient that we follow Andrew as he comes upon a realm of primitive human ceremony (40,000 years back?), captured by wonder more than by force, and enlisted in a fertility rite enacted for the moon goddess. "Lie to us -- dance us back the tribal morn" cries out Hart Crane's poet-explorer in part of The Bridge, as he is incorporated into an Indian ceremony occurring centuries in the past. The tribal morn here is that major crisis of human consciousness which must have occurred when our precursors realized -- like some members of Andrew's tribe -- that it is sexual intercourse and not propitiatory ritual which impregnates women. It is a violently revolutionary moment in human conceptual history; part of the power of this remarkable book lies in the choice of that moment as a mythological background for contemporary poetic and generative failure.

The precise role which Andrew elects to play in the ceremony is central to the remainder of the book, the third and final part of which reenters the world of the novel. The reader is awakened, as it were, to Andrew's external life by being plunged into a day in 1969. We find him, at the end of what we infer has turned out to be a great creative career, lying in bed, the victim for the past months of a stroke. Wandering of speech, surrounded by his family again, he stares uncomprehendingly at the TV screen on which is being transmitted the improbable fantasy of a landing on the moon's surface. Only the reader who has accompanied Andrew into a realm of lunar depth can comprehend his deranged speech, or the history of his creative life. What we have learned from the anterior imagined scene -- from the tale of what we know could not have literally occurred -- allows us to make more sense of the real world than that real world's own insights could ever afford.

Thus the reader as Rip Van Winkle, or as the human consciousness led out of Plato's cave for a while, reenters life at a later time and with a higher knowledge. I have known Sanford Friedman and his previous fiction for a good many years, but this book seems not only his best, but represents a subtle control of the genre of prose romance -- like William Golding's The Inheritors or Pincher Martin -- whose strength comes from, rather than despite, its problematic character. As C. S. Lewis remarks, it is the kind of writing which "gets under our skin, hits us at levels deeper than our thoughts and even our passions, troubles oldest certainities till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for the rest of our lives."