TOM McHALE is the author of five previous novels, aNational Book Award nominee who has been praised in the past for his wildly irreverent black comedy; early in Dear Friends, we catch a glimpse of his comic gift. James Sutherland is a Boston attorney, a self-made man who has risen through a difficult childhood to a large measure of outward success, and his first marriage is to an elegantly and delicately beautiful woman named Edith Watkins. Elegant and delicate she is for most of the year, but on each Christmas day of the nine years of their marriage she goes on a raunchy drunken spree that expresses rage at the neglect with which she was raised, and that culminates as she destroys a Christmas dinner and lambastes portraits of her parents with the Christmas turkey. Sutherland watches these outbursts with Elizabeth McGivern, an earthy Irish servant who adores her mistress and encourages her eccentricities.

McHale's brand of comedy is largely that of situation, the incongruous and incredible moment rendered in something of a deadpan. What comedy there is in the language generally finds its way into the dialogue, which can seem to come out of nowhere, as when the aristocratic Edith suddenly acquires a vocabulary that would do credit to a longshoreman. Perhaps the novel's funniest scene concerns Sutherland's encounter, when he is out jogging, with Jane Occhapenti, who is to be his second wife; once Jane's German shepherd has chewed its way down to his athletic supporter, and he has arrived at one of Edith's dinner parties with Jane in tow, we know we are in the kind of scene that McHale handles marvelously well, and in which any words at all might pop from a character's mouth.

The great bulk of Dear Friends concerns Sutherland's marriage to this second woman and is not--unfortunately, to my mind--in a comic mode. As Sutherland approaches the Christmas season of his 37th year, his wife is about to have a baby, and two nights before Christmas he sees a man apparently wave at him from the Esplanade far below his apartment, then pull out a Luger and shoot himself. After Sutherland calls the police and returns to the window, however, the body is gone. The suicide has been staged, and is staged again the next night. The man also phones the Sutherlands repeatedly, greeting them only with insane laughter, and trails Sutherland through the streets of Boston, allowing himself just to be seen before he disappears. As James is approaching what he had hoped would be a new start in life, he finds himself searching his past for any enemy who might want to torment him.

The book jacket characterizes Dear Friends as "a novel of marriage and obsession"; the problem seems to be that it cannot decide what kind of novel it is. It begins as a satire in which the characters are not taken seriously as human beings, moves on to a sympathetic study of a man and his marriage at midlife, then tries to become a taut thriller. Needless to say, these things don't blend. The characters who were comic mouthpieces early in the novel cannot suddenly become flesh and blood human beings; we barely have a chance to see the Sutherlands' marriage before their tormentor arrives; and it is hard for the thriller to stay taut when it has any number of loose ends to tie up.

For Dear Friends includes much more than I have already mentioned: a prescient bisexual hairdresser by the name of Otis; Sutherland's parents Archibald and Marjorie, who have a major marital confrontation the night before Jane gives birth; a delicatessen owner named Moskowitz, who is friendly with mob hit men; the honest cop Mallory, who is conducting a love affair in his brother's car wash. A bizarre comic novel can probably involve as many plot complications as it wants, but a basically serious novel cannot.

Another problem in Dear Friends is that the glib witty dialogue that might work well in a comedy is inauthentic as real speech, especially when every character uses it and the plot is largely advanced by means of it.

Dear Friends is an extremely complicated and generally skillful narrative, and McHale is obviously a most talented writer; one almost feels that he is too talented, rolling off his deft characterizations and witty speeches and plot complications without first considering whether they should be there or not. One hates to condemn a man to his early success, but the novel's comic passages are its more successful. In any case, whether it moved beyond comedy or not, Dear Friends should have sought a sharper focus.