STRONG DRINK, STRONG LANGUAGE

By John Espey

John Daniel & Co. 148 pp. $17.95

"LIKE MOST ministers' children," John Espey writes, "I early perfected several techniques for surviving sermons -- counting games, making knight's moves through the congregation using bald heads, or brown-haired, or ladies' hats for jumps; betting my right hand against my left on what the division would be in the Lord's Prayer between 'debts' and 'trespasses.' "

Espey, a Rhodes Scholar and for years a professor of English at UCLA, first honed these religious survival techniques in the late 1920s listening to his father's sermons in the city of Shanghai. The elder Espey, an ex-schoolmaster turned missionary who saw the world as a moral gymnasium, was a Presbyterian of the old school, a scholar athlete and teetotaller. Except on one memorable family occasion, which no one dared mention afterwards, he was served Welch's grape juice for the toasts at formal dinners. As a boy Espey recalls being told that the miracle at Cana was mainly performed by Jesus as a means "to prevent the wedding guests from drinking unhealthy water."

The father hoped the son would have a "calling" too. Knowing Presbyterianism inside and out, the son wanted out. For years, however, driven by a mix of love and cowardice, supported by his own ironic humor and his mother's amazing grace at maintaining domestic harmony, Espey conspired to protect his father from the true depths of his skepticism. In a sense that the book makes clear and touching, the conspiracy became something of a lifetime work.

Conveying this, and much else, in a space hardly larger than an L.L. Bean catalogue, Espey offers a mini-autobiography, some intriguing glints of pre-war China and an urbane probe into the tense, funny, mysterious inner life of a loving upperclass family. In a tell-all age when great autobiographical beasts grotesquely bulging with personal detritus keep slouching into print, Strong Drink, Strong Language is a miracle of eloquent brevity.

The China of Espey's childhood was a place where one wore white ducks for tennis, a time of "Courtesy Aunts" and patient amahs, afternoon tea, fingerbowls, "scalding all fruit to prevent cholera," not to mention intimate involvement with the not-too-inscrutable East. In young Espey's case this often meant banter with the family cook, who was apparently a paragon of worldliness. One of their running gags involved how hard it was going to be to find young Espey a wife in the cook's home village -- by Chinese standards the boy's skin was disgustingly light, his nose atrociously large, his eyes quite the wrong configuration. A precocious child afflicted with asthma and a weakness for verbal one-upmanship, Espey became aware of Oriental nuances with regard to such things as bribery and loss of face, as well as the often comic inadequacy, when applied to China, of unworldly Christian zeal. The Chinese version of the Golden Rule, he has slyly noted, is "Do not do unto others that which ye would not have others do unto you." REBELLION against faith and father has cauliflower ears as a literary subject. It is often pummeled with youthful outrage and the kind of tedious, ignorant scorn that regards religion as simple hypocrisy. That is not Espey's style. His characteristic voice is closer to Saki than to Samuel Butler. The nearest thing to dramatic confrontation involves his politely pointing out to father the discrepancy between the preachment that all souls are equal before God and the Presbyterian ban on "mixed marriages" with Chinese. Strong Drink, Strong Language is a comedy of heartfelt manners.

Given his family, it could hardly have been otherwise. Father's strongest expression of skepticism, Espey reports, was "Indeed?" -- "almost tantamount to calling one a liar." One of the great scenes involves tennis, a long father-and-son double match against some odious opponents in which his champion-level father suddenly loses his touch. Espey doesn't care about the loss. But thinking to ease the old man's evident chagrin, he says, "We reached the finals, anyway, Dad," thus, as he notes, "risking that intimate title that Mother and Father had told me was inappropriate when I turned 12."

Some 40 years ago John Espey brought out Tales Out of School and Minor Heresies, two small volumes of Chinese memories, highly praised and excerpted in The New Yorker. Wonderful fun, both, but sparing of his parents. One suspects he has waited until after their deaths to publish this sequel so there is no chance of hurting them. If publishers were not so busy these days offering the likes of Ivana Trump a million dollars for two unwritten novels, somebody might collect all three Espey books into one (still slender) volume. Whoever does so will have a small classic on his hands.

Late in his father's life, Espey, no stranger to hard liquor, dared ask him a mildly personal question: How did he feel on that long ago and never since mentioned night when the grape juice was not forthcoming and he indulged in strong drink? "He paused," Espey writes, "and I asked myself, a worried adolescent at 40, if I had stupidly broken the bonds that still held us, bonds that we had both taken great pains to preserve." His father smiled. "Well," he said, "it was warming, John, warming." So is this book.

Timothy Foote is a senior editor and writer on the staff of Smithsonian Magazine.