SARUM: The Novel of England By Edward Rutherfurd Crown. 897 pp. $19.95

GRANDLY subtitled "The Novel of England," Sarum (the ancient name for Salisbury) is a condensed history of England from the Ice Age to the present, recounted through events in that city and the lives of five fictional families. It's hefty. It's sweeping. And it doesn't work.

In this, his first novel, Edward Rutherfurd has sought to cram 100 centuries into less than 900 pages. It shows. Pre-historic hunters, the builders of Stonehenge, Romans and Vikings race across the pages, followed by the Black Death, the Reformation, Cromwell and the Civil War, Clive, Nelson and Empire, and concluding with a heliborne royal visit by Prince Charles to Salisbury Cathedral in 1985. Rutherfurd's cavalcade approach, with some exceptions, reduces the sweep of English history to something akin to "NBC News Update" -- World War I, for example, makes a cameo appearance -- and it also makes for some interesting transitions ("Approximately three thousand five hundred years passed . . . "). Gore Vidal it ain't.

Sarum doesn't fare appreciably better as fiction. While Rutherfurd has attempted to produce a work on the James Michener model, the stronger influences would appear to be out of the Harold Robbins-Jacqueline Susann genre (" {Maeve} was like a wild animal . . . she tore at his toga with her hands.")

Indeed, there is a soap operettish quality to virtually all of the fictional vignettes sprinkled throughout Sarum. Will Nooma the mason take the infidelity of his wife with that weasel Tark the riverman in stride or will he dump four tons of Stonehenge building materials on him in a creative construction mishap? Must Dluc the High Priest continue sacrificing young girls to the moon goddess for failing to provide that moody (and nonproductive) old chief Krona with an heir? Will that conniving Celt Maeve seduce the homesick young Roman Porteus by lacing his food with aphrodisiac herbs? Will the lecherous monk Aeflwine succeed in his unseemly advances toward the innocent young novitiate Osric? Can Edward Shockley keep his closet Protestantism from his devout Catholic wife Katherine Moody, lest he be denied "her young body, now in its first, perfect fullness"? (Is this riveting fiction? Is the archbishop of Canterbury Catholic?) After a while, the reader is left with a sense, not of Stonehenge, but of Knots' Landing with stones.

SARUM works best when people are building things. Rutherfurd's account of the creation of Stonehenge is informative and convincing, as are his descriptions of the construction of Salisbury Cathedral. And there are some nice touches, such as the stone fertility symbol crafted by the pre-historic hunter Hwll which keeps emerging from excavations down through the centuries and comes to its final resting place, embedded by a mason in a niche in the cathedral tower. The onset of the Black Plague as seen through the eyes of an infected sewer rat is also good.

But these are rare occurrences in a narrative awash with gratuitous historical references (Francis Drake warrants three quick paragraphs, Shakespeare a few line entries) and virtually every conceivable description of the female breast -- "firm young breasts"; "hard young breasts"; "young breasts thrust forward tantalizingly"; "small breasts"; "magnificent heavy breasts" (the last belonging to Nellie Godfrey of the "titanic orgasms," no iceberg she). If all of the bosoms depicted in Sarum were to heave collectively, they'd register at least 7.8 on the Richter scale and England would be an undersea suburb of Atlantis.

Rutherfurd has stated that prior to this effort he "had been trying to write a historical novel for years, without the slightest success." This book does little to change that. If Rutherfurd had narrowed his focus and developed a cohesive narrative, Sarum might have had a chance. For when themes are fleshed out -- notably the construction of Stonehenge and of the cathedral -- Sarum informs. And when fictional characters are fully developed, as is the case when the Shockleys take opposing Royalist and Cromwellian sides in England's Civil War, Sarum entertains. But Rutherfurd's scattershot approach reduces history to an episodic outline, a chronological gloss on a fictional sprawl. The effect is not unlike watching a series of slides flashed quickly across a screen, leaving a blur of images, but no lasting imprint.

At bottom, Sarum is the literary equivalent of Rose Mary Woods' demonstration of how she erased the Watergate tape -- it comes a cropper by trying to do too many things at once.

Rory Quirk, a Washington attorney, frequently reviews popular fiction for Book World.