OUT ON THE RIM By Ross Thomas Mysterious Press. 314 pp. $17.95

ONE CAN'T HELP but wonder if Ross Thomas plays chess, for if the whole fabulously complex task of imagining and then executing a novel could be likened to a single game in a chess tournament in which there are hundreds, if not thousands, of competing players, then this book would surely be nominated for a "brilliancy prize." Thomas has great moves, and the reader who supposes that he or she has outguessed the author and seen ahead to any single position in -- much less the end of -- this game had better think again.

One of the most striking motifs in much of Thomas' work is that of a man who is a kind of spiritual submarine drifting in dark currents somewhere far below the surface of the dreams, desire, fears, hopes, and everyday concerns on which the rest of us sail. The man has usually been plunged into these depths by some kind of severe trauma; he has seen the monsters there, and has not bothered to complete the return journey. A basically decent man, he is no longer dismayed by anything, and he usually expects the worse from his fellow human beings. He is not necessarily depressed, and he is certainly not defeated; rather, he is on indefinite leave from passion about anything. A plug in the heart has been pulled, and much -- but not all -- has drained away. While Thomas brings these characters vividly to life, it is nonetheless clear that they are near the point of spiritual death. Having clearly drawn the character, what Thomas does is to put the man in a highly complex and perilous situation. What usually results is an exhilarating, visceral experience for the reader as the man, responding to increasing pressure, begins to invent himself moment by moment, discovering unexpected reserves of decency and courage.

In Out On The Rim, this role of existential (anti) hero is assumed by one Booth Stallings, a 60-year-old expert on terrorism who has yet to find a definition of terrorism he feels comfortable with. He is the center of gravity in this densely populated novel. He has written one well-received book, Anatomy of Terror, but his career as consultant to various organizations has been something less than outstanding. His longest tenure in any position has been 18 months, and we see him being fired from that job in the opening pages.

Almost immediately he is approached with a proposition by a representative of a person or persons unknown. Stallings is informed that he is a "sole source," the only person who can carry out this assignment, and thus will be paid a large sum if he will agree to act as a bagman carrying a bribe of $5 million. He is to go "out on the rim" ("the world west of Catalina and east of China") to Corazon Aquino's Philippines, where he will deliver the bribe to a revered Communist guerilla leader -- a man who fought with Stallings in World War II, and who has insisted on Stallings as liasion. In exchange for the money, the guerilla leader has agreed to hie himself off to Hong Kong, supposedly never again to darken Aquino's door.

Well. Whatever may happen outside Aquino's door, Stallings clearly recognizes opportunity's knock on his own. He has his own notions about what should be done with the anonymous benefactor's largesse, and to implement these notions he sets out to recruit some help. Now, these are the kinds of hired hands that can rip your heart out, and they too have their own notions about what to do with the money. Stallings finds himself a member of one of the most remarkable bands of renegades, con persons, thieves, liars and killers ever to have been assembled on the printed page. Allegiances shift faster than a windsock whipping in a hurricane. And while this group, individually and collectively, tries to decide what to do with the $5 million, a lot of other people -- including the CIA, the State Department, the Manila police, and assorted gangsters -- are trying to decide what to do about Stallings and Company.

Colorful? Every character is fully and lovingly developed through rich description, whip-crack dialogue that rings absolutely true, and, of course, behavior. People who in the hands of a lesser talent would come across merely as "shady characters" all glow here in rainbow hues. Consequently, it is only appropriate that one member of this all-star rogues gallery be named Georgia Blue.

As Maurice "Otherguy" (so-called because, as we all know, it's always the other guy who did it) Overby might say, we're talking good stuff here.

BUT THIS is more than a gem of a crime novel. There's a good deal of serious music here, dark chords sounding through the pop riffs of snappy dialogue and fast-paced, brutal action. The locales of Out On The Rim may be exotic, but what I suspect to be one of the main themes of the novel isn't out on any rim, but rushes in a channel cut right through the heart of America -- our character, assumptions and behavior in the world at large. Nothing, I am told, can more bemuse an author than to be told by an admiring but naive reader what his "real intentions" were. Nevertheless, to this reader Ross Thomas set out to write his own Anatomy of Terror -- and he has succeeded brilliantly. It can be no accident that Stallings' son-in-law is a vapid senator.

Booth Stallings finds his viable definition of terrorism, and when, on the very last page in the very last sentence, he completes his ascent and bursts from the depths to suck in air, light and life, our hearts fill up even as his does. We cheer his rebirth and salvation even as we are astonished at the decision he makes as to what to do with the rest of his life; it is a most perversely satisfying act of self-realization. Not a few readers will wish that Stallings had surfaced to find himself tapped to be Secretary of State, or with a yen to run against his son-in-law, or even to run for President. But, as someone mentions in the course of the novel, Booth Stallings is no fool. He's spent the better part of his life "out on the rim," but now he's back. When he wakes up in the morning, he wants to find his soul where he left it the night before.

George C. Chesbro's most recent detective novels are "Two Songs This Archangel Sings" and "Veil."