"Sergeant Getulio" is a Brazilian novel that American readers should have no trouble understanding. True, the locale may at first seem remote and the characters exotically named, but as the action unfolds, everything becomes reassuringly familiar. Americans are, after all, raised from childhood on the myths and heroes of the Wild West, and Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro's deftly constructed "tale of virtue" reads like a Western - and a brilliant though frightfully gory one at that.

It is unlikely, however, that Ribeiro actually intended to establish himself as a sort of Brazilian Sam Packinpah. A newspaper editor in the northeast of Brazil, a vast and inhospitable region with a history as violent as that of our own Southwest, Ribeiro here seems concerned primarily with moral issues. But he also happens to be a novelist with a taste for vivid landscapes, crisp dialogue and dramatic confrontations, so what emerges is a work that enlightens and entertains, translated from Portuguese into terse, idiomatic English by Rebeiro himself.

On one level "Sergeant Getulio" is merely a simple tale of adventure, told simply. Getulio Santos Bezerra is a hired gun in the service of a political boss in the poor and desolate northeastern Brazilian state of Sergipe. Sent to capture and deliver for revenge one of his employer's rivals, Sergeant Getulio is halfway back to his home base, with the trussed and terrified prisoners in tow, when the boss changes his mind. There is a presidential election going on, and the kidnaping has become an issue.

Getulio, however, is not a man to back down. To him, duty is duty, no matter the cost. When troops arrive to relieve him of the prisoner, he annihilates them. "The chief told me to go look for this creature," he explains to the priest who gives him refuge. "I went, I caught him, brought him along, broke him and I am going to take him, even if the chief can no longer support me I will have taken the man and delivered him. It is necessary to deliver the animal."

Clearly, Sergeant Getulio's behavior is not the kind we would ordinarily associate with the idea of "Virtue." Ribeiro, however, is thinking back to an earlier age, when valor and virtue were synoymous. Getulio is a warrior in that tradition, and he lives by the centuries-old code of the warrior. He is a doomed man, though, because it is 1950, and even in the isolated backlands of Brazil the unswerving, unreasoning courage and dedication that once made men like Getulio valuable are becoming obsolete.

"Times are changing," the priest tells Getulio.But the sergeant doesn't want to think about that or anything else, for that matter. "It is by thinking that you become yellow," he says. "The will to fight fades when you think about it and when you remember this you forget about what you were going to do and end up not doing anything at all." Getulio is, in short, brutal and unfeeling, without the slightest notion of what it means to be human - and only the most limited understanding of what it means to be a man.

It is a testment to Ribeiro's skill, however, that he manages to present Getulio in a sympathetic light in the harsh world Sergeant Getulio inhabits, there are very few choices. It is either kill or be killed, rob or be robbed. The strong thrive: the weak struggle to survive. "If I weren't alert," Getulio tells himself, "I'd still be back there in the nameless backlands, chewing wild beans, thin as a son of a devil, a couple of scraps for possessions, a heap of children, a pinch of food every week and a wretched nag to round up strays for some rancher."

Rather than live that kind of life, Getulio would prefer to die. And die he does - but not before Ribeiro affors the reader the opportunity to experience the world as Getulio experiences it. As his end draws near, Getulio recalls with gusto a mouth-watering meal he once ate in the company of his boss, and plunges into one last bout of sex. Scattered among these episodes are moments in which Getulio remembers old folk songs and poverbs ("hunger is the best spice") and tries, in his clumsy way, to make sense of what is happening to him.

By the time death comes to Getulio, he seems to be not a vicious beast but the hero of a classical tragedy. Given the structure Ribeiro has adopted for his novel, that is almost inevitable. "Sergeant Getulio" is told as a monologue, and there is no way to move out of the sergeant's mind and into the world around him. The reader has no choice but to see the world through Getulio's eyes and understand it as he does: as a parched and cruel place, full of stunted beings.

In these surroundings Getulio's reliance on violence seems anything but senseless. He has killed more than 20 people (It's like women, impossible to remember them all"), but never has he killed for pleasure; he is a moral man who kills only out of duty or a sense of honor, and if when he beheads the government lieutenant who has been sent to arrest him, Getulio thinks merely that his victim's neck slices "exactly like an oxtail," it is only because, sadly, he has neverlearned to value any human life - including his own.