TRAFFIC AND LAUGHTER

By Ted Mooney

Knopf. 402 pp. $19.95

ALMOST A DECADE ago, Ted Mooney's first novel, Easy Travel to Other Planets, appeared to great acclaim. Awards and deliciously dangerous comments like "remarkable," "our next John Irving" and "masterpiece" greeted this strangely lyrical, vibrant work by a new writer in town who took a lot of chances but on the whole achieved what he set out to do.

Unlike the old days when writers could (and to some degree were expected to) sit around for years and think about what they were going to do next, we live in a time where artists are expected to produce. You can have a couple of years off, but if you take too long between books eyebrows start to rise. "What's X up to?" becomes the suspicious "When did his last novel come out?" becomes the grumpy and suspicious "That long ago? This next one better be good!"

Unfortunate, because art is not like bread dough -- it doesn't always rise after you've pounded it a few dozen times. The fact that Ted Mooney wrote a fine first novel and then waited, or wrestled, for years to produce a second should have nothing to do with how we see his new one. The important question here is not how long it was between books for him, but rather whether Traffic and Laughter is good or not.

Like its predecessor, it is a Jacob of novels, challenging any number of late-20th century angels (both dark and light) to fight. It is about atomic war, grand love, art, international politics (particularly South Africa) and, now and then, the re-invention of time. One has to admire the author for his willingness to take on all these comers in one small ring -- a 400-page story.

It begins wonderfully with a woman briskly assessing her worldly possessions because her house is minutes away from being engulfed by one of those ghastly Southern California fires that are forever sweeping through that part of the country. To our delight, what she ends up doing instead of saving anything is to make fierce love on the floor of her doomed house with a man she had met only hours before. So we say, okay, this is going to be a hell of a show -- right off the bat apocalypse and salvation, love and destruction.

The characters are attractive, thoughtful, teeming with life and passion. Sylvia is a radio disc jockey whose loss in the first pages allows her a freedom, both physically and spiritually, she had never known before. What subsequently happens to her is reminiscent of the poem by Basho:

My house burned down.

Now I can better see

the rising moon.

She loses her old life but gains Michael, the man she was about to interview for her show when the fire struck. Michael creates special effects for the movies and is already engaged to Laurel. But grand passion is the greatest "special effect" of all and both Sylvia and Michael soon know nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of their feelings for each other. There are many scenes of physical love in the novel and obviously, from their length and incandescence, the author is saying this can be one of the ways out of the muddle we're in. Only the flames of our own heat can quell those we have lit around us. Like using dynamite to stop forest fires, an enormous fire can sometimes strangle smaller ones.

BECAUSE ON another level, Traffic and Laughter is a novel about the coming apocalypse. At the same time as Sylvia's loss and love happen, her father -- a consummate career diplomat -- is secretly negotiating for the United States with other world powers about whether or not to test the first fission bomb. Suddenly the reader's head jerks up and we say "Fission bomb? But that was 40 years ago! This novel is supposed to be taking place now!" And here is where the author himself starts in with his own special effects. From this point on in the book, historical time loses all significance. At the same time that people negotiate the use of the first atomic device, others are discussing the most up-to-the-minute events in South Africa. What's more, at the end of the novel, all events are inextricably linked, despite their time differences. On the one hand there is the microcosm of human love, on the other world events that tower menacingly over everything. What will happen and which will "win" is at the heart of this story.

But in the end, Mooney's novel is unfortunately staggered by its multiplicity. There are so many things going on at once, so many micros and macros, time slips, secret negotiations and public crises that despite its genuinely noble attempt to sum up what is both right and wrong with end-of-the-century America, Traffic and Laughter is overwhelmed by its subject matter and consequently overwhelms us.

Jonathan Carroll, a novelist who lives in Austria, is the author, most recently, of "A Child Across the Sky."