SWEET AND VICIOUS

By David Schickler. Dial. 242 pp. $23

Three gangsters -- a mean one, a stupid one and Henry, the hoodlum with a heart of gold -- are on a job in rural Illinois when a hawk bursts through the windshield and dies. In its talons is a white squirrel, which survives and scampers away from the car. This is a heavy load of indecipherable metaphor for any book to carry, and, sure enough, Sweet and Vicious struggles to remain airborne.

The three guys arrive at a sheep farm where an associate of theirs is about to abscond to Belize with millions of dollars' worth of ill-got diamonds and his pretty Playboy-centerfold wife. The mean guy is distracted by the wife from his original purpose (retrieving diamonds) and sets about assaulting her with a stick of butter. Being nice, Henry naturally objects to rape by dairy product. He feels sorry for the hapless, double-crossing couple, as well as for their sheep. So he beats his two comrades to a pulp, releases everybody, takes the diamonds and heads off in a pickup truck he found in the barn.

Within hours he's in Wisconsin, where he picks up Grace, a university-educated car-wash attendant. They're meant for each other -- she's a redhead, and he's got muscles -- so in she jumps, and a car chase across several states ensues, much like any road trip: The Badlands are the Badlands, and Montana turns out to have mountains.

Their courtship is brief. Within half an hour, Henry and Grace are in the back of the car, and he's "tasting not just her body but her whole female swirl, her IQ, and her humor, maybe even her womb." Greedy of him to taste her whole swirl, I thought. And what is her IQ? Shouldn't we be told?

There can be no "screwing"' (Grace's favorite word) until they're married, because Grace is "trying for heaven." She's been trying for it ever since being abruptly deflowered at 15 by a passing evangelical preacher. The incident still rankles with her. It rankles with me, too, not least for its suggestion of synaesthesia (surely the least exciting of psychic abilities):

"A power was brewing in her loins, a color she couldn't name but wanted to. . . ." Might that unnamed color be purple, by any chance? This is lazy prose, masquerading as intuitive. Schickler writes better about sex when he sticks to the bare facts. After Grace and Henry marry later that day, they celebrate by "screwing" against the back of a fried dough booth at a country carnival, in full view of the donut boy, and eating beignets all the while. For once Schickler refrains from trying to tell us what sex feels like, and lets the scene stand on its own.

But we never find out who these people are. Schickler expects us to care about their troubles without ever making them real. He merely assembles a hodgepodge of detail about everybody, assigning each new character an eccentric trait or two, as if this will suffice to form them into well-rounded and endearing personalities for us. It doesn't. It's repetitive, meaningless and patronizing. Can't anyone just be ordinary?

One of the gangsters eats blueberries in merlot all the time and reads Thoreau. Two boys "excelled at chess and loved Pink Floyd," another "was fearful of nuclear winter," a fourth "would visit Laos in August with his parents and his stomach would tolerate the trip poorly." The mean gangster's conquests include "a Communist in thongs" and a "ticklish vegan." And there's a particularly irritating girl called Color who can "smell brush fires at their discarded-match inception." Schickler throws magical realism around as if it grows on trees.

He also assumes we care about the plight -- and preoccupations -- of teenagers. The book is littered with totemic teenage stuff, a high school world in which money matters, male strength matters, as do the formal dance, sex, guns and ESP. Cars really matter. Add a little home-baked Christianity, and you begin to feel you're in a teenager's bedroom. (I wasn't interested in teenagers even when I was one.)

The title implies some sort of battle between good and evil, body and soul, Bonnie and Clyde -- the War and Peace of Chicago gangsterdom, the Pride and Prejudice of car journeys. But Schickler never manages to tease a real dilemma out of this wandering tale -- it's just viciously sweet. He had some success with his first book, a collection of stories, Kissing in Manhattan, but this novel shows the saggy elastic of an over-elongated tale. Drastically condensed, it might make a good three-minute ad for Christianity, aimed at teenagers. But who needs that? *

Lucy Ellmann's most recent novel is "Dot in the Universe."