EAST IS EAST By T. Coraghessan Boyle Viking. 364 pp. $19.95

IN HIS fourth novel, East Is East, T. Coraghessan Boyle dishes up, in stylish, muscular prose, another of the rollicking and savagely funny entertainments that have become his trademark.

The 20-year-old hero, Hiro Tanaka of Kyoto, is a despised half-breed, son of an American hippie and a buck-toothed Japanese music student whose penchant for rock 'n' roll leads her to a sad end. An orphan, Hiro is raised by his grandmother, finding spiritual guidance in Yukio Mishima, whose treatise on Jocho Yamamoto, The Way of the Samurai, becomes Hiro's adolescent bible.

Signing aboard a Japanese merchant freighter, Hiro is confined to the brig for insubordination, and eventually jumps ship. Appraised by gulls with "professional" eyes, he drifts toward the American coastline, dreaming of beer -- "bottles like amber jewels in a bed of ice" -- and of the fabled cities of the American melting pot -- Beantown, the Big Apple, and Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love -- where he will be, Hiro fondly thinks, accepted, "maybe even {will} discover his father in some gleaming, spacious ranch house and sit down to cheeseburgers with him." Well, maybe not . . .

For starters, Hiro is several hundred miles south of his preferred destination, off the swamp-riddled Georgia coast, naturalist's paradise, castaway's hell. Hiro fetches up on Tupelo Island, site of an Artists' Colony endowed by Septima Lights, elderly patroness and dilettante. "Thanatopsis House" (after William Cullen Bryant's antiquated meditation on death) sports secluded artists' studios named for famous suicides -- Hart Crane, Diane Arbus etc. Here we meet a motley gaggle of suspect artist types, including the writer Irving Thalamus, "a middle-aged legend . . . whose stock in trade was urban Jewish angst," a punk sculptress from Mount Holyoke and the composer Clara Kleinschmidt, whose music sounds like slow death in the metronome factory."

Expending some high-octane vitriol -- and perhaps doing a little private bounty-hunting -- Boyle gives us a savage send-up of the whole Arts Colony scene. At Thanatopsis it is not the work that wins prestige, but the repartee in the billiard room and the game of musical beds that occurs after hours. If he's egregiously unfair, he's also witty at his prank -- and very funny. (Less funny is Boyle's treatment of southerners. Rounding up the Usual Suspects -- the cud-chewing redneck sheriff, the Iron Maiden et al. -- Boyle dispenses a lot of tired cornpone, fake Hollywood accents and general Gomerism, devoting twice as much energy to the Georgia landscape as to the people who inhabit it. Fotunately he anchors his narrative elsewhere.)

Enter Ruth Dershowitz, our female lead. "La Dershowitz," as she's known, is a sort of literary ambulance-chaser, writing "faction" based on lurid newspaper accounts. Ruth owes her residence at Thanatopsis less to her dubious talent than to her sexual alliance with Saxby Lights, son of Septima. As Hiro drifts toward shore, Saxby and Ruth are getting it on in Saxby's boat and almost run Hiro down.

This near-literal collision is the first of many between Hiro's world and Ruth's. In an ingenious structure adapted from the movies, Boyle cross-cuts from Ruth at Thanatopsis to Hiro trudging through the bogs, leaving the reader hanging by his nails at crisis after crisis. Hiro, now classified IAADA -- Illegal Alien, Armed, Dangerous and Amok -- becomes the target of an Immigration and Naturalization Service manhunt. Ruth briefly hides him in her studio, demonstrating some maternal (and some not-so-maternal) feeling. But when the story becomes front-page news, she capitalizes on the notoriety to get a tony agent and a half-million dollar advance for a tell-all book, deciding that she will be a journalist, "like Joan Didion."

After a series of misencounters with various alligators, hounddogs, sharecroppers, gun-toting rednecks and one dotty old lady who mistakes him for Seiji Ozawa, Hiro falls into the clutches of the INS, only to escape again -- from the frying pan into the fire, as it turns out. This time, Hiro winds up in the Okefenokee, the granddaddy of all swamps, beginning a new round of ordeals that make his previous ones on Tupelo seem like a Thanatopsis cocktail hour. Encountering a family of tourists in a canoe, a now-delirious Hiro tries to decipher what they're saying. "Oh, yes. Yes. The hakujin warcry: 'Can we help you?' " In context, this is a belly-laugh -- not the only one the book contains. EAST IS EAST is raucous good fun, and a good deal more. Boyle is literate, intelligent, funny, whimsical and fetchingly maniacal. After winning the PEN/Faulkner award for World's End, his reputation is deservedly on the rise. He walks that thinnest of lines between being an entertainer and a serious artist, his prose unequivocally suggesting the latter. Despite his multiple facility, however, despite the underlying ferocity of his humor, there's been a facileness overall in Boyle's work to date.

True, East is East scores some light points about racial misperception; Boyle demonstrates the cruel way art sometimes feeds on innocent life -- a not entirely original insight. But one comes away asking, what was this about, really? Insect bites, hunger pangs, artistic bitchery, hilarious malentendus -- well, okay, but where's the beef (or hara?) In the final pages Boyle makes a swift and, to me, unconvincing stab at tragedy, but after the prevailing comic tone, this leaves a preservative aftertaste. Hiro is disabused of many illusions, but his final choice is based on an illusion, too. He learns nothing, and consequently we don't either.

This criticism of what the book is not would be unfair if Boyle were really a writer of "potboilers" as his publicists, in an unfortunate gaffe, proclaim. ("Potboiler" is a coinage referring to "mediocre work produced solely for financial benefit.") Boyle is emphatically not that. But if he has the goods -- and I think he does -- it's time for him to seine a little deeper and bring up some of the abyssal wildlife we expect, and need, from our serious explorers. In the meantime, I plan to continue reading every book this man turns out, and to recommend him highly. David Payne is the author of the novels "Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street" and "Early From the Dance."