THE FULL MATILDA

By David Haynes

Harlem Moon/Broadway. 370 pp. Paperback, $14 Near the end of her life, the eccentric Matilda Housewright recalls the line from Milton, "They also serve who only stand and wait." Thinking the sentence over, Matilda reflects, "I couldn't begin to tell you what exactly it's supposed to have meant. But even so . . . every time I heard those words repeated I always assumed they must have had something to do with me."

The words have everything to do with her. The notoriously difficult-to-please Matilda is a scion of the aptly named Housewrights, a family that has been in the service industry for generations. Other families pass down heirlooms and photographs; the Housewrights pass down the secrets of polishing china, or catering the ideal Washington, D.C., luncheon. They are a black family who view service as an art, not a burden. Since before the turn of the century, they have lived behind the scenes of the capital's power circles.

This is how Matilda pityingly describes the dilemma of the typical freshman senator: "Back in your home state, you have achieved for yourself and your family a certain prominence, and of course you are used to the fine things that life has to offer . . . [but] you would soon come to discover that the rules are different in the District of Columbia. This city is unlike any you've known. To be specific, while Washington has always been and always will be a community in love with money, having money in this town buys you almost nothing in terms of social acceptance or prestige." The real secret to social status is the knowledge of how to entertain, which guests never to seat next to each other, which cigars to offer. Behind every successful D.C senator or businessman is a skilled retinue. "We are a kind of social Vaseline," explains Matilda.

The tradition began with Matilda's grandfather, Josiah, who was a master of the service arts. He represents the apogee the others have since aspired to reach. Matilda's father, Jacob, established himself as the most renowned retainer of his day, the longtime employee of a powerful senator. Her brother, Martin, established a successful catering business. Curiously for someone as obsessively refined and courteous as Matilda, her own career as a provider and enhancer of the social necessities proved sadly brief. Shortly after Martin started the catering business, the two siblings quarreled. Martin fired her. Matilda moved into the family home. This occurred in 1947. From that time on, Matilda Housewright has lived a spinster's life.

Martin travels out into the world, marries, begets children. Matilda putters about in her garden, living as much in memory as in the contemporary world. She seems old long before she grows old.

The rest of The Full Matilda is a generational portrait as well as a character study of its snooty title character. The latter-day Housewright generations have lost some of the family sheen. There's David, who shows potential in the service trade. However, after getting caught up in the black militant politics of the 1960s, he dies young, meeting his maker when a policeman's stray bullet cuts him down at a protest rally. There's Roderick, the first of the Housewright clan to marry a white person, which causes some family turmoil, but Aunt Matilda might have been more upset to learn that the business-minded Roderick cut corners, sacrificing quality in the interests of finance. Finally, there's Roderick's son Jake, the most contemporary Housewright. He's biracial, identity-conflicted and computer literate. The passing generations may change, and times change, but Aunt Matilda doesn't.

Many of the plot elements are on the familiar side, but this is acceptable in a social comedy. The Full Matilda resembles movies such as George Cukor's "The Philadelphia Story," or plays like Noel Coward's "Private Lives," combining screwball farce, sharp dialogue and social commentary smuggled in via the seminal encounters Aunt Matilda has with each of the younger Housewrights. But The Full Matilda is like a version of "The Philadelphia Story" that lasts an hour too long. The story has ambitious breadth, but its depth doesn't match its length. The light-handed material is stretched too thin, and sometimes it's just too cute. But the best parts have the sparkle a good social comedy needs. For example, for years the estranged siblings, Martin and Matilda, have communicated through subtly accusatory, timeworn aphorisms and adages. Their go-between is Martin's son, David. The reader chuckles when David finally rebels. Rather than convey another message, he requests a balanced accounting of the past few years. "So which one of you won, do you think? You or your brother?"

Parts of The Full Matilda are told in the first person; other parts are third-person omniscient. In the latter parts, David Haynes attempts to give the book substance by evoking American cultural history, as the Housewright clan lives through the days of segregation to the civil rights era, the '70s, the '80s, etc. He does an admirable job with 1940s Washington, but as the book progresses his quick sketches of modern times become specious. The '80s are predictably the "money" era; the '90s are multicultural. These attempts at social commentary are too pat to come off successfully. Haynes resorts to a shorthand writing style that palls. Much more effective is Matilda's self-consciously overblown style in the sections she narrates.

Haynes is a very talented comic novelist whose next book could easily pull all his talents together into a more satisfying whole. The Full Matilda is too loosely constructed, meandering from Matilda to other characters, confusing the reader as to who the central character truly is and leaving a number of plot threads unresolved. The book sprawls, loses energy and clunks along. It has a schema, but it lacks a concentrated dramatic effect. But the bright spots -- most notably Matilda's monologues -- leave me with reason to hope that David Haynes's next book will have the fire in the belly that would really distinguish his brand of social comedy from the pack. *

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic living in Charleston, S.C.