WHITE APPLES

By Jonathan Carroll

Tor. 304 pp. $24.95

For a little while now I've been noticing a trend in fiction in which the overall effect of dying seems to be, if not an actual improvement in the life of the deceased, at least its indefinite extension. Therefore it was with no small interest that I picked up the 14th of Jonathan Carroll's books, which is among his flashiest. White Apples is the story of Vincent Ettrich, who returns from death and has difficulty remembering what went on back when he was dead, back when he was alive, or for that matter now, which is somewhere In-Between. Carroll lives in Austria, and the novel itself is strung loosely between Vienna and New York.

The dead part, who knows? But the In-Between is complicated by the fact that Ettrich has two shape-changing guides. One is male and bad; the other is female and good. Together these two keep crashing him into various people's dreams, his own actual past life and the ever-weird present. Given such a morphing party, in what can a guy trust?

Why, in love, of course. Or in this case, his definitely alive former girlfriend, who's about to have his baby, a super-being destined to save the world, if only Vincent can do the right thing. There's also an ex-wife and his children too, but they're mostly -- as folks used to say -- chopped liver.

But ah, the girlfriend, whose enigmatic name is Isabelle Neukor. . . . She turns out to be not only more romantic than any human could possibly want or deserve (and writes heartrendingly bad poetry) but is also a looker into the bargain, with "Swedish-blond hair and big bee-stung blue eyes . . . like a beauty in a cosmetics commercial." Leave out those bee-stung eyes, and who could resist?

In other words, what we have here is a novel that combines As I Lay Dying, The Omen and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and if this sounds awful, it's not. Actually it's pretty entertaining, largely because of Carroll's amazing ability to alternate between flimflam and truly wondrous effects. Part of the time he's really, really smart, and then at others so cute that this reader just wanted to hurl his copy of White Apples across the room. Here's a little exchange about zoos:

"Why do animals always look sad at zoos?"

"Because they hate being kept captive. But they've chosen to sacrifice their freedom so people can be safe."

And if I had thrown the book into the ficus at that point, I would have missed, at that same zoo, one of the most horrific and memorable scenes I've read in a long time.

So Jonathan Carroll is a writer like few others. He's a master of illusion (albeit one who risks staging a magic show so interminable that his audience ceases to care what's real and what's not); he knows how to end chapters with a crackle, and in the middle of some ambitious piece of pop philosophy (White Apples contains, among other things, "The Meaning of Life"), he can actually approach what somebody might call "The Real Thing." Whatever that is.

But along with this sense of amazement he's capable of summoning up, Carroll's writing seems to be infused as well by a teenageresque belief that the world can be known, and explained too, by him. He's a man who enjoys coining aphorisms, and sometimes reading White Apples feels like turning the pages of Bartlett's Quotations: "Having money in the family was like cigarettes -- the trouble with both was that they were always there for you." "How easily objects can strike us down with sadness. One glance at them can tell us everything about a person's life." Clearly, it's answers, not questions, that Carroll is after.

Yet the questions remain. Will Vincent Ettrich succeed in becoming the dad that the Yet-Unborn Avatar needs? Will Vincent become a better person for all this hassle between two worlds? Who knows, but when Jonathan Carroll refers to a Leonard Cohen song on the book's very last page, he's recognizing the man who may be his almost exact equivalent in the world of music. While Carroll isn't exactly writing the equivalent of "art song," it's not just bubble-gum rock either.

In other words, Carroll is a most exasperating lug. He won't settle down and become "literary," but he is a genuine purveyor of wonder, a writer whose intent is to expand rather than diminish the possibility of human, and maybe even extra-human, life. *

Jim Krusoe lives in Los Angeles. His novel "Iceland" was recently published.