WHAT WE HAD

A Memoir

By James Chace

Summit. 187 pp. $17.95

THE CITY of Fall River, Mass., is a run-down piece of real estate indented by bodies of water so intricate and numerous as to render standard roadmaps useless. You have to be a sailor to grasp the geography of the place. Heading for the Cape from I-95 South, however, you can skim over this industrial remnant without setting foot on it. Shut-down textile mills skulk below the Braga Bridge, their blackened windows like pirates' eye-patches. Family dwellings, mostly old, tend to extremes: mansions or tenements. Fall River writes the history of New England in a cramped, dark hand within the narrow margin between Mount Hope Bay and New Bedford. You're bound, in New Bedford, to think of Ahab. In Fall River Lizzie Borden inevitably comes to mind, her raised axe deadly as a harpoon.

It's not hard to imagine madness taking root on such uneven and unyielding ground. New Bedford was recently the site of a notorious gang-rape; a serial killer's handiwork is still being excavated around Fall River. Violence may be a natural by-product of lives hemmed in by so bleak and tight-fisted a terrain and economy.

James Chace, a former editor of Foreign Affairs and the distinguished author of five books on public policy, has written an elegant and intriguing memoir of Fall River, of his family and his youth, and of the fine threads of madness pulling taut but never quite breaking between them.

"There were richer families in Fall River, but the Chaces had been around. They had been treasurers of mills and sea captains, and {my grandfather} was Frank Minthorn Chace, the President of the Massachusetts State Senate. Moreover, he had married well when he found Amanda Livingstone Dubois from New York City. The Duboises had money, and plenty of it, owned large tracts of what became Central Park, even operating a racetrack in upper Manhattan . . ."

By the time of the author's birth in 1931, however, the Chace family had come up empty-handed. A single question -- "What happened to the money?" -- dominated dinner-table conversation on holidays. A decade earlier the senator had died, bequeathing his widow "seven diamond rings and a tower of debt . . ." The Chaces' sole remaining golden goose was Aunt Sue, moderately well married and stable, and not averse to the occasional handout.

It is a sad, sometimes funny, and always complicated family tree James Chace sketches here, an eccentric group portrait remarkable for its color, perspective and lack of bitterness. Chace's mother, Mildred, "drank in the still afternoons," while his father, Holly, dreamed and schemed and got nowhere fast. Uncle Shockie was a gambler with a "historic past" and a "dangerous present." If the author seems at times to hold his loved ones at arm's length, one can hardly blame him: The Chaces are dangerous in their affections.

One of the most fascinating affections in What We Had is that of James for his only sibling, Hollister, born 10 years to the day before the author. "Our relations were neither simply friendly nor simply distant: we were locked together in open conflict or in almost passionate love."

Hollister, according to the family mythology, "was always crazy." Before James had quite reached the verge of puberty, Pearl Harbor was bombed and his brother enlisted in the Army. "He was away for forty-two months and came back wounded and a hero." But wherever he was, Hollister loomed over his brother's life: "A blackness bars his image. Yet he was also present, sleeping beside me in the maple twin bed. Did he touch me in the night? Did he beat up on me in the darkness?"

Toward the end of the book, in one of its most moving and memorable scenes, a 14-year-old James drowns "a scarecrow of {his} soldier brother" from a small skiff in the Taunton River, Fall River's skyline dark at his back. Years later, Hollister having died in his forties of a heart attack, James visits Peru in a belated search for his brother's grave. First, however, he traces Hollister's footsteps to Macchu Picchu: "I had come to the edge of the world, as my brother did, as far away from Fall River as we could go. But the steps led nowhere. The stones were huge, but there was no fortress, and the site itself was exposed to all kinds of weather . . . "

The next day, Chace tells us, he returned to Lima "and did not bother finding {his} brother's grave," visiting instead a museum of Inca erotica, where "household pottery {was} shaped into genitals, a phallus for a spout and vaginas at the openings of serving bowls."

What We Had is a subtle and intricate piece of autobiography, a beautifully written meditation, a life examined with delicacy, wit and grace. Now and then, one wishes the author could have been a bit less enigmatic. But that is largely a measure of the book's power. James Chace knows better than to explicate feeling. A reader is left to draw many inferences, fewer conclusions.

What We Had spans the better part of a century, covers ground from Paris to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Nicaragua to Cambridge, Mass., sweatshops to polo fields. But its soul is Fall River. Like that heartbreak of a town, the Chace story is full of grieving ghosts and family secrets, caught between grandeur and the wrecking ball. What endures is as triumphant as it is tragic.

Susan Dodd, author of, most recently, "Hell-Bent Men and Their Cities," teaches creative writing at Harvard.