RODNEY HALL is an established Australian writer--poet and biographer as well as novelist--who is now being published in the United States for the first time. This novel, his third, should certainly enhance his reputation abroad. For, quite simply, Just Relations is a splendid book; original, readable and profound; and, though inimitably Australian in setting and speech and feeling, it achieves the universality which Yeats was convinced was inseparable from loyalty to one's native place, and is thus anything but parochial.

The "just relations" of the title are the 49 inhabitants of Whitey's Fall, a ghostly goldmining town set on a mountain of diggers' rubble in coastal New South Wales. Most of them are extremely aged, having been progressively abandoned by the younger generations, and move blithely or bitterly between past and present, altogether isolated from the modern world. Vaguely aware that "history is not a chain of things done, but a continuance of things been," they have cast off conventional religion in favor of their own ritual of "Remembering," practiced in the bar of the local pub. "You let go and permit yourself to live again, or still live, what happened at some other time and place," explains Miss Brinsmead, not the least notable in this village of eccentrics, out of whose foibles and squabbles, dreams and nightmares, Hall fashions a hilarious, yet moving, study in geriatrics.

But the modern world in the shape of the Department of Main Roads, in alliance with the Australian Aesthetic and Historical Resources Commission, threatens the "accumulated meanings" of Whitey's Fall. It is proposed to put a highway through the town and to restore and preserve its ramshackle buildings as tourist attractions. The aged inhabitants put aside their petty differences and join forces against the bulldozers and earthmovers, a tottering army of "guerrillas . . . on crutches, in braces and on wheels." They don't exactly succeed in halting progress, but nevertheless retreat unvanquished further up their mountain, where "they live on the food of that land and it's hard to tell them among the flowering trees." The "better society" that was Whitey's Fall is seen to survive.

Just Relations addresses in this way one of the century's hardiest themes: the defense of the country against the city, the Garden against the Machine, tradition against progress. The inhabitants of Whitey's Fall are so identified with the natural world--the mountain, the forest, the wind and the light--that Nature almost becomes another character in the novel. The very idea of progress is caricatured unmercifully throughout: giant motors mutilate the land, tourists and parliamentary yes-men swarm upon it, the old rural Australia is cheapened by the rise of "trinket shops and them car-park things." Without doubt, Just Relations draws its inspiration from the great anti-technological animus that has fueled so many modern ideologies, both conservative and revolutionary. Yet, surprisingly, the novel avoids ideological conclusions of its own. Though Hall's sympathies clearly lie with the ancient mountain folk who "represent" a society uniquely attuned to the past and to nature's ways, the book as a whole remains non-prescriptive, even dispassionate. "Everything's your business I hope if you're truly alive to the world," says Miss Brinsmead. With the eye of a true Romantic, Rodney Hall "sees into the life of things," but passes no judgment and certainly sanctions no political action.

Technically, the novel defies categorization. It is reminiscent in different ways of both Joyce and Garc,ia M,arquez, but to say this is not to impugn its originality, especially in the context of contemporary Australian literature. It is at once comic fantasy (the dead wander among the living; an elderly lady flies above the tree- tops) and tragedy (a small boy hidden in a secret room blows himself up with gelignite). It is that rare thing, a successful novel of ideas, but also a book abounding with memorable characters, thanks in no small part to Hall's ear for rural Australian speech. (The American edition may even require a glossary.) It spins out one of the most gripping plots I have encountered in a long while, but at the same time it is a lyric performance which reveals on every page Rodney Hall's background as a poet.

The novel's style is in fact its strength. The writing is amazingly strong and inventive, rarely indulging in the poetic for its own sake. At its best, lyrical observation is sharpened by a distinctive intelligence: "Summer at Main Ridge is the time for white ants to bring down the shop buildings and chew church floorboards to lace. . . . It is a magnet lifting scales of paint from rockinghorses, drawing the colours from washed clothes to disperse them on the glittering wind."

There are faults, of course. The novel is probably too long; a few chapters drag and flounder in pointless evocation of detail; occasionally one wishes for relief from the relentless exuberance of language and over-use of adjectives. Like the lush forest growth on its own symbolic mountain, Just Relations could do with some pruning. But these are relatively minor criticisms, not intended to detract from the real magnitude of Rodney Hall's achievement.