THE INDIAN LAWYER

By James Welch

Norton. 349 pp. $19.95

A LOT OF people seem to be writing about Montana these days -- Ivan Doig, James Lee Burke, Thomas McGuane, and now James Welch in his new novel, The Indian Lawyer. Perhaps it is the idea of the last frontier, or the stark, rugged landscape, or the stubborn individualism of the people who live in Montana that inspires such creativity. Whatever it is, the appeal is not easily translated through the written word.

Like many a human being, The Indian Lawyer starts off with great promise and ends marred by the scars of what might have been. It is the story of Sylvester Yellow Calf, Indian, lawyer, star basketball player; a man who is courteous, smart, good, kind and -- in a word -- noble. He has a society girlfriend and a prestigious job and an invitation to run for Congress. While performing community service by sitting on the prison parole board, he comes into contact with Jack Harwood, an inmate of the Montana State Prison. Jack is an accountant who commits bank robberies and cannot explain why, except to say that he is fascinated with crime.

Jack has a wife named Patti, who is sweet and lonely and good. There are few shades to any of the characters in this novel. Jack, who of course wants to get out of prison, and who, again, is supposed to be "smart," comes up with the lamebrain scheme that his wife should sleep with Sylvester, and then Jack will blackmail Sylvester into voting to grant him parole. The fact that Sylvester is but one of three votes on the parole board is never addressed, but as the book goes along even Welch admits that Jack has not come up with a very good plan.

In any event, Patti Harwood, using her maiden name, goes to Sylvester Yellow Calf, who, despite being a member of Helena's biggest firm, apparently practices all kinds of law (criminal, personal injury, Indian rights, environmental, and probate, to name but a few of his specialties); and consults him regarding a lost will. After a while. Welch admits that Patti's story is not a very good one either.

Nevertheless, Sylvester accepts Patti's line, sleeps with her and then finds himself in a big mess because he is supposed to be running for Congress and two of Jack's former prison buddies know what he has done. Sylvester bluffs these bad guys out of blackmailing him, but realizes that with this mark on his character he can no longer run for Congress, so he drops out of the race, takes a leave of absence from his law firm, and goes off to do pro bono legal work for his fellow Indians.

James Welch clearly had a very serious idea in mind that is all but lost in the banality of his plot. The concept of a man caught between two worlds is fresh and alive when it comes to American Indians, and Welch handles that beautifully, as he does his physical descriptions of virtually every location in the book. He is, for example, equally adept at describing the bleakness of a reservation basketball court, the lurking danger of a redneck bar, and the plushness of a turn-of-the-century Helena mansion.

ON THE OTHER hand, he writes with the commitment of a man on a mission, shifting points of view whenever he feels it necessary to make sure the reader knows exactly what he wants him or her to know. While this approach succeeds in coveying a sense of importance to everything he says, it leaves the reader feeling manipulated -- and thus wanting something more than a simple tale of transient immortality and redemption.

What Sylvester Yellow Calf does, particularly given his ignorance of Patti Harwood's true identity, was little more than a mistake, and in post-birth control America is generally not considered a crime of moral turpitude. His response to that mistake could have been to resign from the parole board. Instead, he abandons a sure congressional seat that he knows could be of immense help to "his people" and returns to "tradition" to find the values he supposedly lost by means of his attraction to Patti. My suspicion is that many readers will be left shaking their heads more over Sylvester Yellow Calf than the dilemmas with which he was confronted.

Walter Walker is a San Francisco personal injury lawyer whose most recent novel is "The Immediate Prospect of Being Hanged."