By James Gordon Bennett

Delacorte. 165 pp. $17.95

IN JUST 176 finely textured pages James Gordon Bennett has managed to create a palpable, heart-rending universe spanning 20 years and containing two unforgettable characters.

My Father's Geisha is set during the 1960s and '70s on a series of drab, interchangeable Army bases from Proving Ground, Ariz., and Baton Rouge, La., to temporary housing in Los Angeles and Boston. It is the same culturally sterile, gung-ho world which Pat Conroy so clearly described in The Great Santini. But the secretive, Army major father in this book, unlike Conroy's Bull Meecham, bears little for his wife and children besides benign neglect as he shuttles them from one base to another, leaving them for years at a time for overseas assignments, and carrying on adulterous affairs all the while.

For the sake of their young children, Cora and Teddy, the major and his wife (Bennett does not give them names) reach an uneasy truce. Despite occasional flare-ups, they tacitly agree to conceal their crumbling marriage from their kids, but to no avail. Brought up in this obvious conspiracy of silence, Teddy, and especially Cora, both very perceptive, miss little and gradually become precociously cynical (Cora) and edgily withdrawn (Teddy) in much the same way as Franny, Zooey and the other young Glass family members in J.D. Salinger's works.

The story is told completely from Teddy's point of view and it is a tribute to the author -- in his debut novel -- to have pulled off the young, first-person narration so successfully. Not only that, but to convincingly portray an 11-year-old -- in all his naivete' -- voicing his nascent anxiety about his family's deterioration is, to be sure, an act of consummate literary skill. Listen to Teddy who has just witnessed his parents' most recent row and who has overheard the mysterious word "philanderer" for the first time:

" . . . I ask Cora what 'philander' is."

" 'Philanderer, knucklehead. Give me a break, for Chrissake.'

". . . My mother says that things will work out and that I am not to take the cares of the world on my young shoulders. Cora says that I should hang loose or I'm going to have a peptic ulcer before I can shave . . . But this time is different. This time my father is a philanderer."

Years later as a college student Teddy painfully discovers the full extent of his father's deceit and angrily wishes that his heart could be freeze-dried, then thawed back to life, "so that from that moment on everything and everyone would be absolutely new."

WHILE YOUNG Teddy grapples to define exactly what is happening to his family, his older sister, Cora, precociously cynical probably because she knows exactly what's going on between her parents, firmly retreats into the fantasy world of movies and screen magazines to hide her pain. Much of the dialogue in Geisha crackles, in fact, mainly through Cora's cynical sensibility. Here 13-year-old Cora describes her mother's garish new party dress to uncomprehending young Teddy:

"Could you believe that getup? Un-be-liev-able! . . . Where did I see it? Give me a second . . . It's coming. Un momento. I see it. I got it . . .

"Mom's vamping him . . . Obvious to everyone, of course, except a certain idiot sibling."

Cora eventually makes a disastrous marriage with Anton, a mentally unbalanced, Romanian medical doctor. Besides his quirky solar experiments involving his lying in snow overnight and his habit of taking everyone's blood pressure upon entering a room, Anton is also arrested -- naked -- after driving his Mercedes through a red light and into a snowbank.

My Father's Geisha, poignant, funny and powerfully perceptive, is not concerned with simple, formal plot. Rather, it is a string of gem-like chapters forming a seamless novel of subtle character development. It is an intimate diary, if you will, of Teddy's gradual and reluctant discovery, over 20 years, of the heartless deceit at the core of his family, And its conclusion -- which I will not disclose -- is profoundly moving.

Chris Patsilelis is a freelance writer living in New Haven, Conn.