THE RAT By Gu nter Grass Translated from the German By Ralph Manheim A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 371 pp. $17.95

THIS 18th book by Gu nter Grass is his first full-dress work of fiction in the nine years since The Flounder, a busy meditation on the history of food and women from the German Middle Ages to the present that transformed the matter of sexual and cultural politics into a Rabelaisian stew. After nearly a decade of miscellaneous productions -- a short novel, The Meeting at Telgte, that proved to be a elaborate conceit on German literary history; Headbirths, a half-fictional diary of a trip to the Far East; and three collections of drawings, etchings, speeches, and essays from 1954 to 1983 -- Grass has delivered himself of a work that shows every sign of high seriousness (which, as in much postwar fiction, takes the form of grotesque historical comedy and self-reflexive narrative technique).

In The Rat Grass not only brings back his Flounder from time to time for a cameo repeat performance, but also resurrects his most famous character, Oskar Matzerath, the hunchbacked dwarf of his extraordinary first novel, The Tin Drum, as a nearly 60-year-old media big-shot, a videotape and film producer with a black Mercedes and prostate trouble. Unfortunately, like much else in the novel, this resuscitation emphasizes how much more fictional -- as opposed to declamatory -- energy Grass once had at his command.

His intellectual curiosity, his erudition and appetite for virtuoso monologue and debate recall such American writers of his generation (he was born in 1927) as Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, just as the science fiction devices and use of German history in this book sometimes recall Kurt Vonnegut (another vet). But such comparisons minimize Grass' idiosyncrasy. The Rat asks to be read as a kind of modern Book of Revelation, with Grass the St. John of our time, the delirious prophet of Apocalypse, a nuclear Big Bang that will end human life and leave the earth populated with rats feasting on radioactive human garbage.

The book begins with a family anecdote: "surfeited and needy," Grass requests a pet rat for Christmas and under the tree "in place of the creche and its well-known personnel" finds a brown rat in a cage, a zoological antichrist, a female, who soon -- as the book turns into a series of dreams -- becomes a cantankerous, loquacious interlocutor. For much of the novel Grass imagines himself spinning above the earth in a space capsule talking and arguing with the She-rat about such matters as the interwining course of human and rat history (Noah's flood, the Black Plague, the fable of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the rats that left a thousand sinking ships throughout military history, the recent fashion among punks for rats as pets). Not to mention the industrial pollution of the earth and the nuclear balance of terror. The book is dominated by the She-rat's description of an atomic Apocalypse and a "posthuman" world of mutant humanoid rats who are finally exterminated by the miraculously surviving brown rats of myth, legend and history. The eternal rat outlives us all.

In addition to this (drastically simplified) plot -- though plot suggests more narrative momentum than we feel -- Grass tells us of the life and times of Lothar Malskat, a 1950s German Gothic art forger (fake history, fake art), of an idea for a movie about a battle between Grimm fairy tale characters and contemporary German bureaucrats intent on destroying the fairy tale forests, and of two journeys: Oskar Matzerath's overland journey to his grandmother's 107th birthday party in the Kashubian countryside near Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) and the journey of a group of feminists on a barge through the Baltic Sea surveying the jellyfish population and searching for a submerged city, Vineta, a kind of feminist Atlantis. Both journeys are interrupted by the nuclear Apocalypse, but then this too is temporarily undone by the peremptory author and his talking rat, though they soon return to their dream of a nuclear Doomsday.

The biblical echoes resound: "And I saw what I dreamed . . . I saw the She-rat on top of the garbage mountain, proclaiming that man is no more . . . I saw . . . bodies shrunken to dwarflike proportions lying on streets and squares . . . Man . . . was no more than a shell, a mummy of himself, good . . . for rat food, nothing more. . . . And I heard myself lamenting. What have we done? What drove us to this end? No women, no Flounder, no fairy tales left, because the forests that cried out for help to the last were reduced to smoke."

Oskar's voice "blare{s} trumpetlike over the final catastrophe. We hear him shouting: 'Thus what was long in the making happened. Thus what men had long been promising one another was fulfilled. Mankind had long been in training for this event. So ends what never should have begun. Oh Reason! Oh Immortality! Nothing was completed, but now all is consummated!' "

The message is loud and clear: "Make an end to making an end." Mankind must follow the example of the Polish workers of Danzig and develop solidarity. We must stop imagining violent resolutions, stop thinking all we have to do is push the wicked witch into the oven. "That's how all your stories ended, and not just your fairy tales," jeers the She-rat. "Into the oven, finished. All your speculations tended toward that solution." The final solution. "You robbers, you exploiters, you poisoners!"

In the midst of this jeremiad, Grass has not entirely forsaken vivid social observation. He is particularly good on the punks: "Iron chains and clanking tin were their ornaments. They exhibited themselves as living scrap iron, rejected, castoff garbage. . . . Everything was charged with fear, not only their sordid pads, but their garishly painted happiness as well. That's why their colors were so strident. Perpetually frightened children, who painted one another with deathly pallor, painted themselves presentiently corpse-green. Even their yellow, their orange were tinged with mold and rot. Their blue was a longing for death. On a chalky foundation they daubed red screams. They painted pale worms, veering to violet. On their backs, their chests, their necks, some wore black and white bars, others welts as though from whippings. They wanted to see themselves bloody. Their carefully dressed hair took on every color. Oh, their solemn death dances in the grounds of bankrupt factories, as if they'd escaped from the Middle Ages, reincarnations of flagellants."

GRASS' TROVE of suggestive historical arcana is still as rich as a dragon's lair: On June 26, 1284 some 130 children of Hamelin (not rats, but proto-punks) were pied-pipered away to vanish forever inside Calvary Mountain. (Thus man destroys moral dissidence.) On May 3, 1945, five days before the end of the war, a ship carrying "five and a half thousand ex-inmates of the Neuengamme concentration camp" was hit by errant British bombers and all went up in smoke and flames. (Man is stupid and brutal.) On September 1, 1951, 12 years to the day after Germany invaded Poland, the town of Lu beck pompously celebrated the seventh centenary of the Church of Saint Mary, in which the forger, Lothar Malskat, had recently "restored" Gothic murals. (Germany as the eternally arrogant, destructive faker). Such symbolic echoes roll through the book like fairy tale thunder.

But as the novel proceeds, the combination of leaden whimsy, indefatigably garrulous debate, and glum narcissism proves fatal. Some writers can turn destructive ferocity into a species of literature -- think of Swift or Ce'line -- but they tend to be driven by a corrosive horror and rage far more extreme than Grass'. There's something pathological at work in them, but not in Gu nter Grass; and in this novel, paradoxically, it proves his undoing. No matter how he raves, he always remains a disgruntled humanist who loves the sound of his own voice far more than his vision of mankind's end.

Richard Locke teaches English and comparative literature at Columbia University.