By Gloria Naylor

Ticknor & Fields. 312 pp. $17.95

IN Mama Day, her third novel, Gloria Naylor manages a considerable feat: She bends black folk and spiritual lore to her uses, all the while scrupulously respecting the integrity of that lore. At the same time, she tells the moving modern-day story of love between two people who have every reason not to expect or get the happiness they eventually earn. It is a neat, and long overdue trick, for too much contemporary black writing retreats into games of language or form (the novels of Clarence Major or John Wideman) or into an imaginary, idealized past (Wideman, again, or Sherley Anne Williams.) I do not mean to deny the obvious talents of these writers I have cited, but simply to say that black writing in the '80s seems to have failed to address many of the realities of black life in the '80s.

Here, Naylor manages to avoid both traps. While there are three narrators -- the two lovers, George and Cocoa, tell their own stories and a third-person narrator relates the happenings on Willow Springs, a small sea island somewhere off the southeast coast -- the effect is only a little confusing, and only at first. Eventually, we see that Naylor has told the story the way the story demanded to be told. Her writing, clear, precise and apt, is always a delight to read; it is often poetic, and yet the narrative thrust of the story is never made subordinate to the poetry.

It is true that Willow Springs, with New York City the setting of this novel, is a kind of never-never land. Off but part of neither South Carolina nor Georgia, it has belonged to its black inhabitants for nearly 200 years. The land has been passed down from Sapphira Wade, a full-blooded African who may have (or may not have) married her master, borne him seven sons and killed him after 1,000 days, then managed to "escape the hangman's noose, laughing in a burst of flames." Nonetheless, Naylor is less interested in escaping the present than in exploring its links with the past, and the landscape is less one of romanticized poverty than one where traditional values hold sway.

Some on Willow Island say Sapphira's sons (Naylor's inventive use of the name subverts images of black women inspired by the long gone, and deservedly so, Amos 'n' Andy Show) were by other men. Some say she smothered the slaveowner, or stabbed him, or poisoned him. She may even have actually loved him and he her. Whatever the truth, all who live on Willow Island agree that Sapphira Wade was a powerful woman: "a true conjure woman: satin, black biscuit cream, red as Georgia clay . . . She could walk through a lightning storm without being touched; grab a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; use the heat of lighting to start the kindling going under her medicine pot . . ." Her descendant, first daughter of the seventh son of a seventh son, is Miranda Day, Cocoa's great-aunt and the spiritual leader of Willow Springs.

The novel opens with Cocoa in New York, where, job-seeking, she is interviewed by George. Before they can become lovers and, eventually, marry, Cocoa must give up her preconceptions about New York and men. In a wonderful piece of business that manages to show women's anger towards men without being alienating, Cocoa thinks about George, the hierarchy of dating in New York, and the fact that she had had "two whole dates in the last month: one whole creep and a half creep. I could have gambled that my luck was getting progressively better and you'd only be a quarter creep."

For his part, George was raised in an orphanage where he "grew up with absolutely no illusions about yourself and the world." When he left, he tells us, "I had what I could see: my head and my two hands, and I had each day to do something with them." And so, he tells Cocoa and us, "until you walked into my office, everything I was . . . was owed to my living fully in the now." He is man who operates by rote and ritual -- there must always be five shirts in his closet, ready to wear at the beginning of the week. In order to become able to love Cocoa, he must begin to think in larger terms about the future and admit her into his world.

It is refreshing to read a book by a black woman in which black men are not objects of ridicule or instruments of torture. While Naylor gives us characters who are fools -- vain, egocentric, given to making wrong choices or simply with too high an opinion of themselves and their abilities -- these characters are always human, and their number equally divided between male and female.

George and Cocoa's story is in the foreground, but those parts that feature Mama Day, matriarch, healer and Willow Springs' vessel of wisdom, are not of lesser importance. In the chapters that alternate with George and Cocoa's story, we see Mama Day aiding a woman unable to bear children, quilting with her sister, Abigail, chiding the bootlegger and would-be conjure man, Dr. Buzzard. She is a woman of power, and it is on Willow Springs, where George accompanies Cocoa on her annual August return home for the first time in their four-year marriage, that her knowledge receives its ultimate test when Cocoa's life is threatened.

To tell more would be to spoil the novel for the reader. Naylor has made Mama Day suspenseful, but the suspense is of the best kind -- the reader continues to read, not because something is being withheld, but because something is always being revealed. And what is revealed is not simply who is threatening Cocoa and why, but something infinitely more valuable: insights into the complex nature of people and matters of the heart such as the difficulty of accepting love.

Her characters are always themselves: Foolish, irascible, wise. At one point, Miranda complains to Abigail that Cocoa has called her "overbearing and domineering" and said she "wasn't coming back to my funeral." Abigail replies, "Well, if you could manage that by next August, she won't have to explain why she's back home then."

Early in their visit to Willow Springs, George wins at poker with Dr. Buzzard, gets drunk and comes home to stand wrapped around a fence post, pondering his next move. The section ends:

" 'Honey, ain't you coming up on the porch?' Miss Abigail asked me.

" 'No, there's money in my pockets.'

"My answer was reasonable and I had concentrated carefully to avoid slurring my words, but after a moment of stillness, soft laughter encircled me before three pairs of even softer arms were guiding me up the steps."

This is a wonderful novel, full of spirit and sass and wisdom and completely realized. :: David Nicholson is an assistant editor of Book World.