THERE'S ONE of those novels that is a little hard to get into, but if you'll just bear with the author for the first 400 pages or so, the last 150 pages are pretty good. Thomas Thompson is a professor of creative writing and an old hand at nonfiction so he knows all about building to a climax. He evidently was afraid that a straightforward chronological telling of his saga would put a slow leak in it, so for two thirds of the book he tries to keep the Big Moment a secret.

We see a District Attorney preparing to prosecute someone for something, but our author makes sure no one tells us who or what. Someone (who is nameless for hundreds of pages) is in a guarded hospital room. People talk about him endlessly but no one mentions his name or occupation. All we know is that he's a celebrity (even Nancy Reagan sends flowers) and he's one of the prosecution's star witnesses. For reasons (which never become clear) the Mysterious Witness may not testify. About what? Be prepared to wait a long time to find out.

This is a fictional saga which follows three Texans from high school days in 1950 through their romances, marriages and careers. One of the three pals becomes a famous journalist. The second is a handsome football player who evolves into a very successful movie actor and the third-- the shady character--ends up a combination of Oral Roberts, Reverend Moon and the Artful Dodger. All three of the Texas boys become very famous and once or twice the author reflects upon their celebrity, but the crux of the plot is the crime which is committed by one of them against one of the others during their 25th reunion festivities. The third old friend is the key eyewitness, but he's somehow incapacitated from testifying; I read where he lost his voice but it was never clear to me why he couldn't have written answers to the lawyers' questions. Anyway, there was a little high drama there for a while because the author wasn't sure the witness could reveal the secret everyone had been keeping from the reader for all those pages.

I've not seen so many commas in a book since I last read Nathaniel Hawthorne. Surely there are not three commas left in Doubleday's comma bin. After wading through the first third I suspected that Mr. Thompson was eligible to be a recipient of Aid for Dependent Clauses, but his biography says he teaches "book writing" at the University of Southern California. About the time he finally tells us who the D.A. accused of what, his style changes from a string of annoying and distracting sub-clauses to crisp and expository narrative and things move right along to a conclusion. Never mind that the ending is contrived and too neat to be believed. At least we get to it without many more of those similes which slowed the first two thirds like a leaden chain around the swan-like neck of a steadfast reader whose eyes by then were like red-rimmed lumps of anthracite coal.

The author's change in pace and style is so obvious that it seems probable that the first 20 chapters were written long ago. (Perhaps around 1846?) I assume the dusty manuscript rested on some shelf while their author taught his classes, wrote his timely nonfiction and honed his skills. At last Mr. Thompson decided to finish his first novel to cash in on the widespread acceptance of his recent best sellers, Blood and Money and Serpentine. One could hardly blame him. So, I deduce, he simply finished up the partially completed manuscript and that accounts for the 19th-century prose up front and the fast-moving conclusion. If so, it's too bad he didn't rewrite the first part. The journalist has some interesting experiences but they are told in the most difficult syntax. The actor has an unhappy marriage and drifts through bisexuality to gaiety, and finally into a marriage of convenience with a lady of the same persuasion. In the process he has a talk with his first wife and thanks her for the way she'd enriched his life:

"So genuine did the declaration sound, so wrenchingly believable were the tears that welled in famous eyes and spilled on fire-reddened cheeks that Susan heard the rest dimly, like cries of help kidnapped by the wind."

That passage from page 356 will give you a rough idea of how slow you'll move through the 25 years with Mack the Actor.

The rascally preacher, T. J. Luther, is a small-time hood and drifter for about 390 pages, then he feigns a religious experience while a prisoner in the Chicago jail. After chemicals injure his eyes, his sight is miraculously restored. He calls himself The Chosen and soon builds a television flock and a huge "Miracle College," near Fort Worth. He does all of that so near page 400 and so crisply that one must assume his religiosity is a part of Mr. Thompson's latter-day efforts.

The three celebrities have a boyhood Guilty Secret (which the author does share with the reader!). The actor, writer and the charismatic preacher return to the scene of their boyhood transgression where some very unlikely things occur. Inter alia the preacher tries to get the others to donate big money to his Miracle College and, when they refuse, we finally find out what is going on. Mr. Thompson has hinted, he's told us just enough to make us wonder, he's even shared some tidbits from the District Attorney's investigation. But he's been so cute about it that, rather than build the suspense, he's worn us all out and we've long ago quit caring. If we'd known right at the top that one of the three old pals killed another, it wouldn't have hurt the story. In fact, I'd have been willing to wade through the remaining thickets of old prose to find out who did what to whom. As it is written, I decided it probably wasn't worth the effort.