ORRIE'S STORY

By Thomas Berger

Little, Brown. 276 pp. $18.95

THOMAS BERGER is one of America's most original novelists and, paradoxically, one of its most derivative. In addition to inventing a genre or two of his own, he has rung idiosyncratic changes on the hardboiled detective novel, the western, science fiction and Arthurian romance. It was only a matter of time until he turned to Greek tragedy. Orrie's Story is The Oresteia, writ small.

To jog your memory: In Aeschylus' trilogy, Agamemnon, commander of the Greeks, returns in triumph from the Trojan war, only to be murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Their complicated motives include lust and revenge, as well as Clytemnestra's resentment of the Trojan princess Cassandra, whom Agamemnon has brought home as one of the spoils of battle. Orestes, Agammnon and Clytemnestra's son -- egged on by his sister Electra and by the god Apollo -- avenges his father by killing his mother and her lover. He is then hounded by the Furies, divine vigilantes opposed to matricide. Finally, the case is brought before the goddess Pallas Athena and the court of the Areopagus, where Orestes is absolved of his blood-guilt in a legal precedent that classical scholars still love to ponder.

In Berger's version, Augie Mencken returns from World War II to the small town where his wife, Esther, and his cousin, E.G., have been carrying on adulterously for years. In what is made to look like a bathroom accident, they kill him -- in part to get his army insurance. Only the Menckens' teenaged daughter, Ellie, realizes her father's death is murder, and she urges her older brother, Orrie, to seek vengeance. Orrie does indeed kill the guilty pair and is brought to trial by a prosecutor named Bernard J. Furie, before a judge named Thea Palliser; his defense lawyer is one Anthony Apollo.

But nothing is quite what it seems in this version. To begin with, Augie Mencken is no hero; he's not even a soldier. Taking the opportunity offered by war to flee his failed business and his disastrous marriage, he has spent the war years on an aircraft-engine assembly line in a southern town. There he has become engaged to a sweet young thing named Cassie. His reason for returning to his hometown (sporting a uniform and medals purchased from an officer in need of quick cash) is to ask Esther for a divorce.

Furthermore, the lovers Esther and E.G. don't much like each other. And the "vengeance" of Orrie (whose relationship with his mother seems more Oedipal than Oresteian) is, in several respects, an accident.

There is, of course, a long and splendid tradition of recycling classical plots. Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra and Sartre's The Flies, for example, are notable 20th-century versions of the story of Orestes. When the recycling is successful, a kind of dialogue between past and present takes place -- a dialogue that may stress the contrasts between old and new, or affirm the unchanging, the universal in human nature, or do both at the same time. BERGER'S version is rife with problems, however. For one, many contemporary readers may not recognize its classsical antecedent. (The publisher spells it out on the dustjacket, but dustjackets have been known to disappear.) The novel must, therefore, be able to stand on its own two feet, without the prop of ancient archetype. Orrie's Story is decidedly unsteady. It is also grim, colorless, flat. No one has written more engagingly of smalltown America in the '30s and '40s than Berger in such black-comic masterpieces as Sneaky People and The Feud. The terrain of Orrie's Story is similar, but one has only to recall the weirdly lovable would-be wife murderer Buddy Sandifer in Sneaky People to realize how far from Berger's best the one-dimensional and unfunny Menckens are.

Readers who are classically inclined -- or who have a copy of The Reader's Encylopedia close at hand -- will have the smug enjoyment of recognizing Berger's sometimes clever metamorphoses of the Greek originals. The regulars at the Idle Hour Bar & Grill are fine stand-ins for the Chorus, and it's mildly amusing that Gena (the updated version of Orestes's other sister, Iphigenia) ends up in a goofy California cult called the Temple of the Loving Spirit, rather than in the temple of Artemis at Tauris. But many of Berger's parallels are strained and beside the point. Augie's innocent 19-year-old girlfriend, Cassie, for example, though "clearsighted, levelheaded, and staunch," has troubling dreams, "visions of events to come in real life." But Cassie's prophetic side has no function in the book, except to identify her with her prototype, the seer Cassandra.

In The Oresteia, cause leads inexorably to effect, fate must work itself out, and "men shall learn wisdom -- by affliction schooled." In Orrie's Story randomness is all. As Orrie muses at one point: "That nonsensical events were commonplace in life went without saying: what was inexplicable was that some of them had enormous consequences while others remained curiosities without implication, and he at least could not not tell the difference until it was too late."

Thomas Berger has demonstrated that truth often and better before, without any help from Aeschylus.

Nina King is editor of Book World.