REUBEN

By John Edgar Wideman

Henry Holt. 215 pp. $16.95

AS EVERYONE admits, John Edgar Wideman is one of the half-dozen leading black novelists alive today. There's just one problem with that description. He doesn't write novels. He certainly writes books called novels, and they contain fictional characters in fictional situations. But what they really are is myths -- generally myths of the biracial society. And a good thing, too. Because if Wideman were a novelist, he would be a seriously flawed one.

Take his new book, Reuben. Listen to a brief account of it, and you'll see what I mean. Let's start with the title character.

Reuben is an old black lawyer in Pittsburgh -- a tiny man with a pointed gray beard and a misshapen body. When he was young, he served as janitor and occasional pimp in a white-boy fraternity at what seems to be the University of Pennsylvania.

One Sunday the frat boys chip in and buy him a session with Flora, the beautiful, possibly part-black madam of the bordello. It's a trap. Once Reuben and Flora start making love, the boys rush in. First they flog Reuben (his back is a mass of scars to this day) and tie Flora spread-eagled to her bed. Their amusing plan is to rape her en masse and then mash her face in. "Such a fetching piece of real estate, but when we finish with it . . . no one will want her," laughs one of the boys, no doubt a future land developer.

The plan is not completed, because just as the mass rape is about to commence, flames come leaping up the stairs. Dudley, the black piano player, has set the building on fire. Flora, tied to the bed, dies a painful death; the brave frat boys jump out the window. No one is ever caught or punished.

Now consider Wally. Wally is younger and better-looking. He's an assistant basketball coach at a mostly white university, but fantasy life is what really interests him. One of his favorites is to imagine himself armed with a baseball bat striding down an endless row of posts. Each post is topped with the head of a middle-aged white male. Wally smashes each one as he passes, and does he enjoy it! Never gets tired, never gets bored. Once (the book is deliberately ambiguous here) Wally seems to have enacted his fantasy, killing a white man picked at random in Chicago. That killing, if it really occurred, is one of the two reasons he's consulting Reuben, the other being the imminent exposure of illegal recruiting practices at his university. As junior coach, Wally will be the official sacrifice.

Then there's Kwansa (born Lily). She's a young black prostitute. Five years ago she had an illegitimate child, a son whom she named Cudjoe and whom she adores. She does not farm him out to an aunt; she raises him herself.

Now the boy's father, not having lifted a finger for five years, has decided he wants his son, and steals him. Kwansa counts on lawyer Reuben to get him back. That's not how it works out, though. Kwansa's new lover, a woman named Toodles, retrieves the kid. She uses a very basic approach. She cuts the father's throat with a razor, so that he dies "spouting blood like a fountain." No more custody fights with him.

In short, if Reuben were a novel, it would be total and shameless melodrama. But it doesn't read that way at all. It reads like the myth it is. A melodrama has a plot, and lots of suspense; the tension builds. Reuben has no real plot -- just events, told discontinuously -- and it has almost no enacted scenes. Mostly you have the voice of John Edgar Wideman, narrating as a tribal storyteller might. Mesmerizing his audience. Building sound, not story. Speaking in many tongues, from black English in Wally's thoughts and Kwansa's speech to the most whitely formal of poetic styles, as in the passage beginning "Night gnaws the city."

This is a book to be read aloud. One chapter that I thought I disliked for being too pretentious in its language -- that chapter I happened to read aloud to a friend, and discovered that I liked it after all. There is true magic in the language, and if you let it crash over you like waves, you may cease to care that there is no enacted story. You may even be able to cease minding that the words "nigger" (for blacks) and "cracker" (for whites) are used as conscious obscenities, meant to shock. In the end one sees that all the shocks -- the murders, the fantasies, burnings, strong words -- all of them amount to a kind of metaphor for the psychic damage that human beings do to each other and that is no less hurtful than spread-eagled beating, just less visible to the outer eye.

Noel Perrin teaches American literature at Dartmouth.