THEIR PRIDE AND JOY By Paul Buttenwieser Delacorte. 424 pp. $17.95

THIS LARGE, determinedly old-fashioned novel is more notable for its ambition and good intentions than as a work of fiction. Paul Buttenwieser has written what seems to be a strongly autobiographical story about a prominent German-Jewish family that must contend with private loss and social change; because the author seems to be writing from personal experience, Their Pride and Joy is deeply felt and passionate. But autobiographical fiction has a tendency to turn inward, which is the pitfall Buttenwieser has been unable to avoid; the story obviously means a great deal to him, but he has not succeeded in making it mean much to the objective reader.

At the center of the tale are the Gutheims, who live comfortably in Manhattan in the postwar years. The parents are Alan and Peggy; he is a lawyer, a sensible man with hopes of being the first Jewish president of the Bar Association of the City of New York, while she is busily involved with charitable projects from one end of the island to the other. Their three children are Phil, a promising lawyer who never really emerges from the shadows; Joan, who has come home from Bennington for treatment of a mysterious ailment; and Carl, the youngest, a clumsy boy with a gift for the piano but little interest in developing it.

The elder Gutheims are, by any reasonable standard, good people: modest about the comforts they enjoy, solicitous of the best interests of the city in which they live, generous to those who are less fortunate. They are perhaps a bit smug about their goodness, to be sure, and a trifle complacent about their position in society, but these shortcomings are more than cancelled by their abhorrence of ostentation and their honesty in both personal and professional dealings.

The times, though, are changing. The comfortable world of the old guard is being threatened from various quarters. The mob, once restricted to the waterfront and certain "seamy corners" of the city, is making inroads elsewhere, though Alan persists in the illusion that "basically New York was a sound city, its leaders -- not the politicians, but the real leaders -- were honest and civic-minded." Worse than that, inside respectable businesses -- law firms, banks, brokerages -- the old customs are beginning to give way to new ones that have less to do with honest dealings than with the naked pursuit of financial gain.

The comfortable world of the Gutheims is beginning to crumble, though like the Finzi-Continis they cannot see what is happening until it is too late. Their situation is exemplified by Joan, who is at once at ease in her own setting yet mindful that somehow things are not quite right -- that her family is too isolated from reality, that its charities are insufficient payment for the privileges it enjoys. For all her charm and vivacity, she is a haunted young woman: "Although she couldn't put her finger on it, there were times when a feeling of dread would run through her. She would not have called herself lonely -- there were far too many people around for that -- but she felt herself alone, terribly alone."

Her sense of dread is heightened by her illness, which doctors cannot diagnose for the simple reason that it was then unknown; all the symptoms she exhibits are those of anorexia. Her unknown disease becomes a metaphor for the unidentified sores that are slowly infesting her family and her culture, eating away from underneath at everything they believe in and take for granted. Her disorientation is intensified when, at her mother's suggestion, she goes to work at a settlement house, Meyer House, where she receives first-hand exposure to the gulf that separates her tiny world of privilege from the ordinary world of the city. She flings herself into an affair with a worker there, even as she becomes engaged to her sweetheart of many years, but nothing can bring her calm or relief:

HER LIFE seemed to consist more and more of elements that couldn't be held together but were pulling farther and farther apart. Here she was in the midst of an opulent . . . Christmas, whose leavings were strewn around the room. The children of Meyer House were enduring, for the most part, a meager, cold holiday. She was being admired and envied for her engagement to a paragon, but she wanted to be with someone who couldn't even set foot in that room. Physically, she was falling to pieces. The sensations of sexuality, modulated increasingly by marijuana, dominated her. She needed food, but felt no hunger. She saw herself as voracious in every other respect; the one way she could deny herself was by not eating. She had too much as it was."

Her end is an unhappy one, as is her family's. She is rejected by her lover, with dire consequences for herself, and her father is coldly dismissed by a member of the old WASP aristocracy. Suddenly the brutal reality of anti-Semitism enters Alan Gutheim's protected little world: "Alan had always considered himself as rooted in New York as anyone could possibly be, but tonight, among the Montgomerys and Islingtons and the rest of them, he felt as shabby and unwashed as any immigrant off the boat." The old world is forever lost.

It is a poignant story, and in today's urban society a pertinent one, but for all his fine intentions Paul Buttenwieser never manages to bring it to life. One major difficulty is that he cannot decide who, or what, is at the center of the novel, with the result that it has no center; my own sense is that Carl was intended to move to the fore, but Buttenwieser never gets him there. Buttenwieser further distracts from the essentials of his story by bogging down in extraneous recitations of where people sat at table, what they ate and drank -- detail that might have meaning within the family, but has none outside it. The sincerity with which he tells his tale is admirable, and the morals he draws from it are important, but the passion is only his, not the reader's. ::