THE PRESERVATIONIST

By David Maine. St. Martin's. 230 pp. $21.95 Dichotomies can be fun. Isaiah Berlin gave us the hedgehog and the fox, Edmund Wilson divided American writers into Palefaces and Redskins, and Cynthia Ozick and Norma Rosen posited a divide between the literature of psychology and that of ideas. The Preservationist, David Maine's fascinating first novel, brings another distinction to mind. It's stylistic rather than categoric; call it the difference between those works that rely for their effect on surprise and those that count upon familiarity.

Sometimes the function of fiction is to take the familiar and make it surprising. At other times stories take the surprising and make it familiar. Yet every novel inevitably uses both modes. It must, because all familiarity and no surprise equals cliche, whereas all surprise and no familiarity may be incoherent. Fortunately, the combination provides a number of permutations as endless as the ones and zeroes of computer code. Through the interplay of these elements, the same situation in two novels may bifurcate and lead to dramatically different and equally satisfying conclusions. In the best books, every page is a surprise as we read it, and every page becomes a familiar part of us after we've read it.

What does this have to do with David Maine's novel? Well, The Preservationist is, quite simply, the story of Noah or, as Maine calls him, Noe. A decent man in an indecent age, he is called upon by God to build an ark and fill it with animals and ride out the destruction of the rest of the world. This story is familiar to anyone with a smidgen of biblical knowledge. Yet as the story has come down to us in Hebrew or Sunday school versions, it's usually viewed through a shortsighted lens that perceives its protagonist as a person rather like one of us who's confronted with a dilemma.

The surprise in Maine's version comes from his transformation of that perception through the gritty integrity of his vision of the prediluvial world.

To begin with, Maine's is a dirty book. The characters live crude lives in squalid one-room dwellings barely advanced from mud huts. And a single boat, no matter how large, filled with thousands of creatures from gnats to elephants is going to generate a lot of, um, organic byproduct. Noe's family is covered in the stuff. They are constantly slipping on the deck inches thick with bird droppings as they totter to the edge to dispose of pails full of rhino and tiger and monkey slop.

The Preservationist is also dirty in the vernacular sense of the word. Noe's family is hardly of the same species as Commodore Vanderbilt out for a nautical jaunt. They are primitives who rut continuously and with abandon, and only at moments do they share a reader's awareness that they're not so different from the animals.

The family consists of the 600-year-old paterfamilias; his unnamed 60-year-old wife; their three sons, Sem, Cham and Japheth; and the sons' three wives, whose names (of Maine's invention) are Bera, Ilya and Mirn. Like his father, Sem is a stolid man of faith and his wife, Bera, plods along. Japheth and Mirn are carefree youngsters. Cham, the craftsman who constructs the ark, found Ilya when he traveled to a nearby port. A pallid sylph from the north, she is familiar with a mysterious cold white substance she calls "snow" and has a hint of scientific curiosity. Oddly, the one thing that all of these people consider utterly unsurprising is the notion that the deity would inform Noe of His intended destruction and order him to create the vast ark that would save only them. Sluggish or skeptical, they immediately obey. Thus, paradoxically, The Preservationist's realism surprises us, although the book portrays extraordinary prophecy as common. By inverting norms, Maine avoids tedium and longueurs during the 40 days and nights of rain.

This pattern of the expected and the unexpected is echoed throughout the narrative, first by the different voices that tell the tale and then by the language that veers between the archaic and the willfully anachronistic. When Noe's wife describes him, she uses images of the ancient world: "Lizard skin and hands like roots. Big cloud of hair like a patch of uncut wool dragged through the dust . . ." Yet at other times, modern idiom seeps in. Japheth calls Bera's babies "twerps," and Cham calls the flood "the world's biggest demolition job."

Through the family's ordeal, Maine's eight characters in search of an acre begin to come to self-consciousness, concluding with the post-landing episode in which Noe's sons witness their father's drunken nakedness. As Adam and Eve once fell through guilt in the Garden, Noe's sons fall in the new Eden through shame. They have become the kind of people who ponder their salvation and their neighbors' drowning and ask, "Why me, and not them? Why them, and not me?" These are questions that couldn't be answered then and can't be now, and that's why they remain eternally valid. *

Melvin Jules Bukiet's most recent books are the collection "A Faker's Dozen" and the anthology "Nothing Makes You Free." He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.