By James Thackara

Overlook. 773 pp. $28.95

Reviewed by Gregory Feeley

James Thackara's immense novel has enjoyed a singular (if equivocal) piece of pre-publication good fortune: In December 1997, when Thackara was unknown in this country, the New Yorker ran an article about the prickly, uncompromising writer and his 1,100-page manuscript, said to be Tolstoyan in scope and ambition. The account made for fascinating reading: The American-born Thackara, who has lived most of his life in London, had published two earlier novels in England but encountered resistance with the third. His quarrels with agents, editors and publishers (at least one of whom had paid a large sum for the novel) ended at a seeming stalemate: He had not acceded to any demands to edit his manuscript into what others considered publishable form, but neither did he have anyone willing to publish it.

Fifteen months later, The Book of Kings has appeared here, and it is receiving more attention than an extremely long novel from an essentially unknown writer usually gets. On the other hand, the New Yorker piece (which Overlook's publicity department has tucked into the review copies, in case anyone missed it) makes plain the extent of disagreement over the success of Thackara's novel, which numerous former associates vividly express. His first editor characterizes an earlier novel as "an odd mixture of the absolutely brilliant and the slightly inept," and a number of others express a similar sentiment about The Book of Kings. If the magazine article has given the book an audience, it is an audience that has already heard a chorus of disapproval.

The manuscript of The Book of Kings as described in the New Yorker seems to be the same text we have before us (1,100 manuscript pages corresponds well with 773 book pages, and the examples various editors adduce of bad writing they sought to emend can all be found in the present version). Set between the years 1932 and 1967, with numerous flashbacks to the '20s, the novel traces the history of four college roommates (along with their eventual wives and children) in the Europe that found itself sliding toward war, endured it, then sought to recover. Though one's first impulse is to think of The Book of Kings as a novel of World War II, the canvas depicting the war itself is merely the central panel of a triptych.

Thackara's title refers to God's warning in 1 Samuel 8:12 about people who cry for an earthly king instead of a God, and the novel's symbolism and frame of reference are explicitly Christian. A recurrent image is of sunlight striking a Swiss glacier and refracting down to the world of men below, who do or don't heed it. In an especially vivid chapter, the description of a tuna-fishing expedition off Algiers in the 1920s shifts from heightened realism to rather incoherent symbolism as the thrashing fish caught in the great net are freed by an even larger fish that seems (Thackara's physical descriptions are often unclear) to have a pair of crossed harpoons emerging from its back. Several of the Nazis' victims die in manners that suggest (or are explicitly likened to) crucifixion.

All of Thackara's reluctant detractors acknowledge that parts of The Book of Kings are tremendously good, and they are right. After more than 200 pages of dinner-party conversation and political forebodings (much of it diffuse, portentous or awkward), the book suddenly comes alive in a series of brilliant set-pieces, many of them depicting the realities of combat. Thackara, who can be tedious when giving the reader a prolonged close-up, proves masterful in moving between the short and long ranges to give the reader a sense both of the enormous movements of armored infantry and the perceptions (euphoric or terrified) of individuals within them.

Other sections are just as good, including long chapters dramatizing the German invasion of Russia, which begins in summertime exhilaration (for the Germans, anyway) before turning to a universal horror in the Russian snows. But the book's best chapters are those that contain a significant element of physical action, however philistine that suggestion may sound to the author. Those passages devoted to his characters' moral quandaries, or their tortured relationships with the women they love, are invariably clumsy, sometimes remarkably so.

The last panel of the triptych takes the novel's surviving characters through various postwar landscapes, including Algeria in rebellion and a South America being invaded by American and European capitalists. Like the final two chapters, which concern the fate of the roommates' now-adult children, these scenes better fit the author's moral vision than any artistic design. The book's framing devices -- there are two: Most of the novel is supposedly told by a major character to his friend's son over a period of weeks, while the prologue and epilogue offer us a vista of the Swiss glaciers -- close symmetrically as parentheses, but the novel within is woefully misshapen.

Gregory Feeley is a novelist and critic who frequently reviews contemporary fiction.