THE PIANO TUNER

By Daniel Mason

Knopf. 318 pp. $24

Daniel Mason has written an ambitious, adventuresome, highly unusual first novel, an agreeably old-fashioned book that offers a number of pleasures too rarely encountered in contemporary American literary fiction. Among these are a strange, exotic setting, a leisurely, formal prose style and a willingness--it is tempting to say eagerness--to take risks. 'The Piano Tuner' comes to the marketplace in a first printing of 150,000 copies, a remarkable number for any serious novel, much less one by a completely unknown writer who majored in biology at college and is at present a medical student in San Francisco.

It will be interesting to see whether this rather admirable gamble by Mason's publisher pays off, for The Piano Tuner is not a book for all tastes. Readers will be impressed by it and engaged with it, but few are likely to love it. There is a clinical, distanced quality about it that should come as no surprise--Mason "wrote my senior thesis on mixed-species malaria infections, on what happens when someone is infected with more than one of the four species of parasite that cause human malaria," and "my work was mainly mathematical"--but that leaves the reader distanced as well.

More about that in a moment. What should be said at first is that Mason's work on malaria led him into territory visited by precious few American-born writers. After graduation from Harvard, he spent a year in Thailand and Myanmar, and clearly became fascinated by the history and landscape of Southeast Asia. He had in his mind "an image of a piano in the jungle"--which of course immediately brings to mind Joseph Conrad, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others who have explored the ironic juxtaposition of the urbane and the tropical--from which emerged this story of a quiet British man who ventures from London to Burma in 1886 to tune a piano in a jungle settlement.

His name is Edgar Drake. He is 41 years old, "a tall, thin man with thick graying hair that hung loosely above a pair of wire-rim glasses," in appearance "more like a schoolteacher than someone capable of bearing any military responsibility," yet that is exactly what the Burma Division of the British Army asks him to assume. A surgeon-major named Anthony Carroll, who for more than a decade has served at Mae Lwin, "a remote post in the Shan States, in the eastern reaches of the colony," has demanded that the army send an expert to tune his piano, a rare and valuable 1840 Erard grand. Eccentric though this demand may seem, it is taken seriously by the army, for Carroll's services go far beyond the medical. The colonel who recruits Drake for the assignment tells him:

"The Shan States are lawless. Except Mae Lwin. Carroll has accomplished more than several battalions. He is indispensable, and he commands one of the most dangerous and important posts in our colonies. The Shan States are essential to securing our eastern frontier; without them we risk invasion, French or even Siamese. If a piano is the concession we must make to keep him at his post, then it is a small cost. But his post is a military post, not a music salon. It is our hope that when the piano is tuned he will return to his work. It is important that you understand this, that you understand that we, not the Surgeon-Major, are hiring you. His ideas can be . . . seductive."

Drake decides that it is, as his wife puts it, "a cause, something worthy," and accepts the assignment. By boat and by train he travels from London to Mandalay, and from there to Mae Lwin. This last part of the journey he undertakes against orders from British authorities. Something dangerous is going on out there, but he ignores their commands and sets forth with a guide and a woman named Khin Myo, whose presence, of course, in time complicates matters. He feels that his duty is "to the piano and not the Crown," and he has persuaded himself that--as he writes to his wife--he has "confidence in Dr. Carroll, and a sense of shared mission with him and his desire to bring the music I find beautiful to places where others have only thought of bringing guns."

He is drawn by forces stronger than himself, forces he can only dimly comprehend. He is drawn by the alluring mystery of Carroll, who will remind many readers of Kurtz, deep in the jungle in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness', though Mason insists that "Carroll is not Kurtz." Even more powerfully, he is drawn by the jungle itself, the alien and unknown, incomparably beautiful, terrifying and alluring. It is much the same potent mix of emotions as is all too familiar to those of us who suffer from acrophobia: a dread of the abyss beyond and an almost irresistible urge to fling oneself into it.

Conrad is an influence on The Piano Tuner, and so too is Homer. Toward the end of his extraordinary journey, Drake comes upon the famous passage from 'The Odyssey' in which travelers encounter the Lotus-Eaters, who "gave them lotus to taste of," with the result that "any of them who ate the honey-sweet fruit of lotus was unwilling to take any message back, or to go away, but they wanted to stay there with the lotus-eating people, feeding on lotus, and forget the way home." It gives away no secrets to say that Drake becomes a Lotus-Eater--as all along he may well have yearned to be--but how that happens and what are its consequences are for the reader to discover.

My purpose in taking note of the influences at work in this book is not to suggest that it is derivative but to locate it in a tradition far outside what has become the American literary mainstream. It explores not the author's inner self but the vast world outside, and it shows ample evidence of what can only be called prodigious research; indeed some readers may feel that there is more herein about the Shan uprisings than they really care to know and that there are more exotic names and places than they can absorb. But these shortcomings--if that in fact is what they are--must be attributed to bold ambition, and admired as such.

A more serious difficulty, as noted above, is the book's clinical, distanced quality. Mason's prose is a pleasure to read, and his ability to get himself inside the head of a 19th-century Englishman is impressive, but the formality of that prose and of the novel itself serves--however unwittingly--as a barrier to the reader's emotional engagement with Drake and Carroll. They are interesting men by all means, but one sees them through a microscope just as Carroll himself observes the tiniest creatures in the jungle waters. Mason makes us interested in them, but he doesn't make us care about them. He does, on the other hand, make us care about himself, a gifted, original and courageous writer whose next book surely will be something to anticipate with curiosity and pleasure.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com