THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA

By Hanif Kureishi

Viking. 284 pp. $18.95

THAT Hanif Kureishi is a British writer of enormous talent and that, like his equally talented and equally cheeky compatriots Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie, he is forcing readers to rethink what constitutes "Englishness" in contemporary multi-racial, multi-cultural England, there is no doubt. The Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi's first novel, has all the wacky wit and political irreverence of his marvelous screenplays, "My Beautiful Launderette" and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid." It concerns itself, as did the two screenplays, with family conflicts in the context of violent racial clashes in Thatcher's Britain. It braids, as did his earlier works, realism and comic exaggeration. Yet I found this novel profoundly unsatisfying.

The Buddha of Suburbia lacks focus and, therefore, narrative momentum. The suburban "Buddha" of the catchy title -- an intriguing character named Haroon/Harry Amir, an India-born Moslem immigrant, a law school dropout, a

300-a-week civil servant, an adulterer and an exotically costumed faux-Zen spiritual counselor -- plays only a peripheral role. The central character, unfortunately, is Karim, Haroon's son by a working-class white woman. Karim comes off -- unintentionally, one suspects -- as a smug, opportunistic, hyper-sensual, self-consciously charming, cruel adolescent who lacks all capacity for the kind of deep feeling necessary to give a bildungsroman emotional and moral resonance. What is delivered is a chronicle of Karim's career advances in the theater and his indefatigable but fairly conventional polymorphic sexual adventures.

Karim's goal is to rid himself of middleclass provincialism, which seems to mean attaching himself to people who have "class, culture and money." His role-model, for too long, is a white teenage friend, Charlie, who, before the novel ends, fashions himself into a Billy Idol-like rockstar. "My love for him {Charlie} was unusual as love goes," Karim recalls without irony, ". . . I preferred him to me and wanted to be him. I wanted his talents, face, style. I wanted to wake up with them all transferred to me." And though Karim loses some of his love for Charlie after vicariously sharing Charlie's masochistic experiments, he never loses his desire to be rich and famous.

Kureishi is at his best dramatizing the plight of non-whites in crudely xenophobic Britain. He opens the novel with a memorable sentence: "My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost." I wish he had concentrated on the interplay of such personal and national anxieties about cultural mongrelization -- his "takes" on the subject are original and forceful -- instead of on orgies (which very quickly lose their power to titillate or shock).

The most urgent passages are about race relations. Here's how a despairing Karim describes the pressures put on him by racist school bullies on the one hand and an ambitious immigrant father on the other: "One kid tried to brand my arm with a red-hot lump of metal. Someone else pissed over my shoes, and all my Dad thought about was me becoming a doctor. What world was he living in? Every day I considered myself lucky to get home from school without serious injury."

KUREISHI's London of the '70s is a city seething with hate and fear. Neo-fascist youth gangs raid ghettoes for fun. "At night they roamed the streets beating Asians and shoving shit and burning rags through their letter-boxes." An Asian woman, a former princess turned ghetto-grocer, "kept buckets of water around her bed in case the shop was fire-bombed in the night."

The only truly admirable character in the novel is Jamila, the London-born teenage daughter of Indian Moslem immigrants, Karim's friend and occasional sexual partner. Jamila, a reader of Angela Davis, a self-trained expert in guerrilla strategies ready for all-out class- and race-related warfare, is nevertheless able to creatively fuse activism with such old world traditions as marrying the mail-order bridegroom selected by her father. "There was in her a great depth of will, of delight in the world, and much energy for love. Her feminism, the sense of self and fight it engendered, the schemes and plans she had, the relationships . . . the things she had made herself know, and all the understanding this gave, seemed to illuminate her . . . as she went forward, an Indian woman, to live a useful life in white England."

There are some hilarious cinematic actions. During a brawl, a loosened tooth settles in a suburban woman's cleavage. A shoplifter stuffs a bottle of herring down the pants of a sleeping security guard. A son-in-law delivers his father-in-law a mortal blow with a dildo.

What starts out as a penetrating novel deteriorates into a novel about penetration. But a wickedly entertaining screenplay lies buried in The Buddha of Suburbia.

Bharati Mukherjee's most recent books are "The Middleman and Other Stories" and the novel "Jasmine." She is a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley.