A COUPLE OF DECADES AGO when the novelist Herbert Gold was encouraged by a producer to write for television, he did a script and handled it in with a couple of ideas in outline form. They were all turned down with regret by the producer who told Gold, "Look, what we're looking for is stories about happy people with happy problems."

Since then, a generation has grown up on this esthetic, such as it is. As a result, even more supposedly serious readers than it is good to admit seem uneasy with stories that they may find "depressing" -- novels about unhappy people with unhappy problems. And so the job of the reviewer, who is after all a kind of combination critic and consumer adviser, becomes a rather tricky one. If his first loyalty is to literature, as it should be, he may at times be tempted to sugar-coat the pill he offers. Knowing that the good novel he has at hand might seem a "downer," he tries to present it in the best possible light -- saying, in effect, "Look, this isn't really such unhappy stuff. There's a laugh on page 178 and, well, a chuckle anyway, on page 305. You might like the characters. And oh yes, it's also true and beautifully written -- but please don't let that scare you off."

I'm tempted to try something like that with Take Me Back . Richard Bausch, out of the Iowa Workshop a few years and the author of an earlier novel that everybody liked titled Real Presence , has written a book about the way we live now -- and you know that has to be pretty grim stuff. Today, given half a chance, people seem to make messes of their lives. And Gordon Brinhart and his wife Katherine, the couple of Take Me Back , seem more adept at it than most. k

For Katherine, the damage was done years before. Back in the '60s, in that eyeblink between adolescence and young womanhood, she gave her soul to rock and roll (as the song has it). She was a guitar player, and a good one, a girl who led a group up and down the East Coast and into New England. Accepting the hazards of the road -- the hard-traveling, the crazy life, even an unwanted pregnancy -- she kept right at it because all she ever wanted to do, really, was play the guitar. But suddenly, we're told, it all turned sour for her. Maybe it was the fact that the baby's father, the group's drummer, took off for parts unknown as soon as he heard she was pregnant; maybe it was just that it was so hard to keep a good band together with him gone. Or maybe it was this male groupie named Brinhart just out of the Army and Vietnam, who kept showing up at gig after gig, asking her to marry him. In the end, she gives in. They collect the baby from the parents where she had parked him, and they head south to Brinart's home in Virginia, just outside Washington, and there they get married.

And now, as the novel begins, that's where they are still. The boy Alex is 12 years old, a distant, miserable kid. Katherine has not touched a guitar since the moment she agreed to marry. And Gordon Brinhart? He's selling insurance, drinking too much, and spending idle moments ogling the juicy 17-year-old morsel who lives in the trailer park behind their garden apartment. The Brinharts, in other words, are already halfway to perdition.

Things get a lot worse. Telling the story skillfully from the alternating points of view of the three members of the family, Bausch has us suffer through the whole ordeal right along with them. Gordon goes off on a drinking jag, misses work, loses his job, and winds up in bed with the 17-year-old. Katherine, naturally hurt, sends him away, and spends the next few days assuring her son and herself they really don't need Gordon anyway -- and then she winds up attempting suicide. Alex sees and hears most of this and occupies himself trying to make sense of it -- that is, when he's not busy with the new neighbor girl who, as it turns out, has leukemia.

Now, there's no way to put a pretty face on a story like that -- and no, Take Me Back isn't pretty. It is, however, as well written as any novel I have read in a while. The characters, all of them, are very well realized. When you come to the end of the book, you know them about as well as the people next door -- hell, they might be the people next door! That's it, you see: Richard Bausch has captured something essential in the quality of American life today in these pages. Even in details and individual scenes he adds brilliantly to this picture. For example, the trip that Katherine makes to the local discount store when she is losing control completely is absolutely realistic in its details yet slightly surrealistic in its effect. Anyone who reads the scene will be unable to visit one of the stores again and be able to ignore the boorish sales clerks and the constant badgering to buy-buy-buy. Bausch makes the reader see and hear better what is happening around him.

What else can I tell you? Well, there is a happy ending of sorts. So you see? It's not such depressing stuff, after all. Please don't let me scare you off.