THIS NOVEL, which functions brilliantly on linguistic, structural, and socio-political levels, is defined by an extravagant and mordant sense of the comic. Like all excellent comic writing, the laughter is generated by language, not situation. At the heart of Luis Rafael Sanchez's book is rage and despair, without which comedy never rises above the level of bobhopeism or the animated cartoon. His humor is, in Brian O'Nolan's phrase, "the handmaid of sorrow and fear."

Permeating the island of Puerto Rico in the middle of the Nixon administration is the runaway hit recording, "Life Is a Phenomenal Thing," a guaraca by Macho Camacho and hs band. The record is on every jukebox, played on every radio station countless times a day, and sung in the streets by people of every class and stratum of society. It is woven through Sanchez's novel as leitmotif and chorous; it is, clearly, a manifestation of the apparent "spirit" of modern-day Puerto Rico.

Macho Camacho's Beat is an evocation of the island's true spirit, given us through an accumulation of information concerning four major characters. As the lie of the guarracha meshes with the truth of the island, a mood of profound irony envelops the novel as we see that the colonial culture of contemporary Puerto Rico is as false and debased as the guaracha that so bitterly represents it: The irony deepens as we become aware that the guaracha is accepted by the islanders themselves as symbolic of their true, lost culture, as if Italian-Americans were to believe that the fat, happy mamas who ceaselessly stir "real" spaghetti sauce on commercials for one or another brand of processed garbage are images of themselves.

Senator Vicente Reinosa, a wealthy, self-satisfied, philandering, and corrupt politician, a perfect creature of American commercial interests, i caught in a gigantic San Juan traffic jam while on his way to see his black, uneducated, and ignorant mistress, on whose crackerbox of a house he pays the rent. His wife, Graciela, neurotic and stupid, a kind of vulgarized Emma Bovary, is, at the same moment, visiting her psychiatrist, a man of spectacular cynicism, the perfect panacea for his clients and their ludicrous maladies. Mired in the same traffic jam, in the Ferrari that he quite literally adores, is the senator's son, Benny, a dull, pampered para-fascist whose thought process make those of Leopold Bloom seem absolutely Aristotelian. In brief chapters, these four -- husband, mistress, wife, son -- are written of over and again. Each time that they are returned to, Sanchez adds new data or enriches old, and by this steady accretion of detail, the four are used to reveal the essence of their perverted society, created and fostered by external business interests. These chapters are divided into sections by short paragraphs that speak of the omni-present guaracha in the depraved language of publicity hacks.

Nothing "really" happens in this novel, and although there is a loose narrative connecting the main characters, there is no plot to interfere with Sanchez's purpose, which is to investigate, with all the resources of language that are at his command, a society that is but a dream of merchandising, a lobotomized market for overpriced goods and ideas of the Good Life, hypnotized by wealth and sterile American culture grafted onto an even more sterile, loony idea of European "glamour."

Sanchez's linguistic resources are multiplex, and he uses them with profligate genius: the book is short, but densely written, and its language occurs in clusters of verbal energy. The texture of the prose is composed of direct and indirect dialogue, authorial (and "Authorial") intrusion, sudden shifts from the third- to the first-person (and vice versa), and an odd, insistent imperative voice that might be the author's, that of an unnamed observer, or that of "Puerto Rican-ness" itself. Sanchez's vocabulary is of a piece with his design -- he uses, in isolation and in incandescent combinations, the language of degenerate politics, crippled rhetoric, advertising, pop culture, academe, smarmy and imbecilic "youth," cheap patriotism, business, vapid psychology, the best seller, the vulgar poor, the stupid middle class, and the idiotic rich. Out of it all he has made a novel that totally exploits its materials, and that operates as do all true works of literary art: it exists only in terms of its medium, its ocean of words. Devoid of cant and sentimentality, it is a literary event.

One of the techniques by which writers illuminate the filth of decaying societies is to use fragments of the decay as the raw stuff of their work. Flaubert did it, as did Joyce and Lewis. In our time, it has been done by, among others, Burroughs, Pinget, Gaddis, and Goytisolo. With this novel, Luis Rafael Sanchez joins this company of salutary assassins.