WATERLOO

By Karen Olsson

Farrar Straus Giroux. 307 pp. $24

Depending on how you count, Karen Olsson's first novel has five or six protagonists. Two are black, two are women, two are politicians, two are drunks, two are deceased -- and if you include it, one is the small city of Austin, Tex., never mentioned by name in the pages of Waterloo but rendered there unmistakably and affectionately.

Olsson's novel follows its protagonists, plus a few dozen secondary characters, as they plan, contemplate, protest, ignore and/or mourn the razing of two neglected buildings: a music club beloved by aging hipsters and the former blacks-only library. It's not easy to fill a medium-sized novel with so many characters, so diverse yet convincing. One of the first we meet, Nick Lasseter, is an "underperforming" reporter for the local alternative weekly. We're with him when he decides to drink too many beers at a party celebrating his ex-girlfriend's wedding; though it's not a wise choice, we can sympathize when he announces, in reference to her new fiance, "I'm not getting in a Saab with that guy." It's a testament to Olsson's skill that we feel the very same sympathy for Beverly Flintic, a first-term assemblywoman having an affair with a Republican candidate for governor, who, whenever he gives a campaign speech, silently recites, "One potato, two potato" between each sentence. She hasn't read the bill that she's sponsoring for him, and while that is a much graver offense than making an ass of oneself at a party, somehow we're ready to forgive her, too.

Then there is Andrea Carter, the daughter of a civil rights activist, who still does not understand what made her steal a pair of expensive leather pants from the closet of her father's girlfriend. And Will Sabert, the last old-school liberal of the Texas congressional delegation. He once fell in love with a bookish lady named Eleanor Hix, who rebuffed him with a charming and concise, "Oh, garbage."

The big article that Nick is supposed to write about Rep. Sabert never gets written, in part because it's not easy to sum up in one newspaper article a career's worth of unpleasant political compromises and incremental legislative adjustments. A novel is better suited to the job, one like this, where the company of fully imagined people takes the place of easy resolutions.

Early on, Nick is depressed by a politician's sincerity: "At one time he'd seen all this sort of political talk as a facade and imagined himself capable of puncturing it, of writing about what really went on, behind all the posturing. But gradually he'd concluded that the people doing the posturing believed in their own postures. There was no simple underlying truth behind or beyond." If Nick were a better reporter, he could get some use out of that insight. Olsson seems to have taken it to heart, though, and she has written a funny, intelligent novel about people who are at odds and at home with each other, just like in a real town. *

James Whorton Jr.'s most recent novel is "Frankland."