THE WALLED ORCHARD

Volume Two in

The Walled Orchard Series

By Tom Holt

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 290 pp. $17.95

WHEN WE last left Eupolis of Pallene, a minor comic dramatist, in Tom Holt's Goatsong, he was standing on the dock watching the great fleet sail away on what was supposed to be the 5th-century B.C. Athenian equivalent of Operation Desert Storm against Syracuse.

At the end of The Walled Orchard, its sequel, everything as it stood in that final scene of Goatsong -- the way men govern themselves, the customs, warfare, comedy itself, the whole known world -- is totally different.

This book, like Goatsong, is supposedly narrated by the aged Eupolis for an audience 50 years or do down the line, so that he is occasionally explaining the differences in the ways things were done in his time to that later audience (and, of course, the way they were done in both times to us.)

Both books, but especially The Walled Orchard, are the history of a time not just in flux but in chaos. And the realization that this old world is gone comes to the reader and the narrator at the same time.

Take the expedition against Syracuse (please). The fleet sails off, everyone expects a flashy victory and lots of loot. Those left behind feel punished for not being in on all the fun. Then (shades of Vietnam) word comes back that what's really needed to win is "only" 10,000 more men.

So off go what's left of Athenian manhood, Eupolis included. In about 50 pages of ordinary, matter-of-fact prose, we learn what it's like being in a fever-ridden, starving camp, what marching in the dark is like, how hand-to-hand combat with someone you're not sure is the enemy or one of your non-Greek-speaking allies feels. Then, equally matter-of-factly, Eupolis and half the remaining Athenians take shelter in the walled orchard of the title and are killed by Syracusan archers, just like the diseased cattle in Hud.

In the killing-floor the orchard has become, the god Dionysus (who appeared twice to the comic poet in Goatsong, and promises to show up again before too long) tells Eupolis to take off: "Look after my favorite poet. I don't want him getting hurt, understood?" Eupolis, feeling immortal, scoots.

Then, a few pages later, he chillingly realizes that the god may not have meant him, when he has to rescue Aristophanes (the bane of his existence) from a bunch of Syracusan shepherd boys.

Such is the way things happen to Eupolis throughout this book; he's never quite sure the events have any special meaning for him; it takes him some days to realize later that he's going on trial for his life.

Goatsong dealt with Eupolis's youth and early manhood, and so was dictated by (remembered) chronology. The Walled Orchard deals largely with politics (the Syracusan expedition was politics gone wrong one way; the aftermath is politics gone wrong the other.)

One of the many strengths of this book is that Holt allows the reader to see many things Eupolis himself does not: After everything in the world has changed, Eupolis complains about the New Comedy, not realizing that it was his own last play that led to the changes in the way dramas were made.

The novel is rich in incident -- the expedition, escape, return to Athens, reconciliation with his wife Phaedra, the political upheavals, insight into the Athenian court system, a 12-page chunk of uninterrupted pure oratory (like something out of Faulkner; it's a writer taking a big chance with modern readers, and bringing it off.)

And, as in all good novels, every action has consequences, the past is always there in the present, pain hurts, nearly every character is a living, breathing person, not a name and an identifying habit.

TOM HOLT has, in these two books, but especially here, brought a new kind of writing to the historical novel. The closest thing we've had before are a couple of books by John Myers Myers, the fantasy Silverlook and a historical novel set in 10th-century A.D. France, The Harp and the Blade. Whereas those books were colloquial, witty and informal (something sorely missing in most historical novels). Holt goes even further, approaching his material with the outlook of a contemporary novelist. Not that the books aren't meticulously researched (even the directions to someplace are exact) or that they don't reek of historicity: What Holt achieves is the feeling that the books were, indeed, written by someone all this stuff happened to. Eupolis notices the kinds of things we notice in everyday life, and ignores the rest, just like us. He has a sure grasp of exchange rates, measures and weights, distances and topography (when Aristophanes and Eupolis are fleeing from Syracuse to Catana we feel every foot of the five-day journey halfway up rocky mountainsides) and local customs.

This contemporaneity works on several levels. I've mentioned Vietnam and Desert Storm; now imagine someone, say a minor Russian poet, writing about the Days of Gorbachev 50 years from now. Eupolis's time was one of turmoil on grander scale than we imagine (though the events were smaller, so was the world; men were still as dead when they got a spear in the eye as if they were at some ground zero). Holt has brought that scale down to very human terms, universal ones. Wherever there is chaos, there's always a Eupolis or two around to talk about it when it's over.

Read The Walled Orchard (and Goatsong) so you can tell your descendants "I was there when the historical novel started holding its head up with the rest of literature."

Howard Waldrop is the author of "Strange Monsters of the Recent Past," which contains the novella "A Dozen Tough Jobs," a retelling of the Hercules myth set in 1920s Mississippi.