"I always wish I could say something clever like John Cheever. Once he was given an award and he got up and said, 'I know you're expecting me to say something modest, but clearly I'm the best writer around," John Casey said, laughing.

But he can't. At 39 Casey doesn't seem much preoccupied with success, though he enjoys it. While he's interested in reviews, what has mattered more to him has been the reactions to his work of people he cares about.

He was, at the moment, a little out of breath, having run the 2 1/4 miles from his office at the University of Virginia to the house where he lives with his wife, novelist Jane Barnes Casey, and their two daughters. He does that just about every day to keep in shape, not, he said, because he's preoccupied with approaching middle age, or death, either.

Everything about John Casey - the thick, athletic build, the reddish brown hair and full beard, the exuberance a certain lilt in his voice - suggests his Irish background. And although many Irish are given to black moods, Casey claims to have only inherited a minimum of that.

It's been 13 years since Casey, a third-year student at Harvard Law and "secret writer," thrust a shoebox stuffed with the 350-page manuscript of a novel at an unsuspecting Peter Taylor, who was teaching writing there. Several months later, after he had joined Taylor's class, the older writer told him, "Be a writer, not a lawyer." And Casey has been ever since.

It's not that he would've made a bad lawyer, Casey insists, just that he was more interested in writing. Until then, he'd always had "an Excalibur complex that made me equate public office with manhood," due to his father's having been a New Deal congressman who stayed in Washington to practice law after losing a Senate race in 1948.

Once he had made the choice, though, "I worked very, very hard. I really surprised myself - I'd always been afraid I was lazy. I don't want to take too much credit - I just kind of crabbed my way into it, by lateral motion." By the time Casey sold his first short story, he had already completed two never-published novels. He's amazed when he recalls that "I'd actually typed 700 pages of manuscript. Just think of it!"

During those years of hard work, Casey sold a few shorts stories, some to The New Yorker, but lived mainly on the income from part-time teaching and from non-fiction pieces on outdoor sports like mountain climbing and cross-country skiing that he sold to magazines such as Sports Illustrated.

"An inteviewer once asked me if I ever despaired during that time," Casey recalled, "and I said, 'No, I just got awfully tired.' I feel a little silly saying this, but I never thought of giving up, it never crossed my mind that someday I wouldn't get it done right."

Now that "An American Romance," his first novel, has received favorable reviews and he has "a steady job" teaching at U.Va, Casey remains philosophical about it. "It's better to have some success at 39, I think, than it would've been in my 20s. If you buy your first Rolls at 28, what do you have to look forward to? Now, all I have to do is sustain some success until I'm 60," he said, a touch of self-mockery in his voice.

The novel is, Casey thinks, "a young man's book, a book about being young - it doesn't have real problems in it, like family life or death." Casey has been called, in fact, "the Fitzgerald of the '70s," as though the protagonists of "An American Romance" - Anya, a very strong and independent woman who directs a repertory theater group in Iowa City, and Mac, an introspective, brooding outdoorsman who becomes the troupe's jack-of-all trades - were the prototypes of the present younger generation.Most people think that "romance" refers to the love affair between Anya and Mac, but for Casey it's a novel about "how to make your own life," and he meant the word in the sense of "a quest," specifically "an American quest, as Emerson might have used the word." (He loved it when a Newsweek reviewer compared him to Emerson and Whitman, he admits.)

He's now finishing a cycle of four novellas in each of which the narrator is what Casey calls "an American mandarin." He explained that he meant "a man of good education who has all the virtues it is thought a young man of his class should have," and in each case the narrator finds himself in a situation in which "his values prove to be, not wrong, but insufficient."

After that, Casey will return to a novel he's already begun, one that is set in Charlottesville. "Charlottesville isn't really southern - we have everything here from landed gentry to rich New Yorkers to European nobility to dirt farmers to plain middle-class folks, and it's that variety I love - but the social stratifications are relatively souther, the sense of kinship even between different classes, which is different from New York or New England." It's a subject that fascinates Casey. The novel's working title is "Monticello and the All-Night People's Drug Store," which, he said, "says a lot about Charlottesville."

And the writers in Charlottesville get along very well - "We all like each other so much it's almost boring," Casey laughed. He's genuinely pleased at the awards that have been won by Settle, McPherson and Day, he said.

"Actually," he confessed, "there was only one prize I really wanted to win," an award given by "someone in Chicago" for the best novel about the Midwest. But he didn't win it, thinks maybe John Sayles' "Union Dues" won.

"I wonder," Casey mused, "if there's still a prize given for the 'best first novel'?" The possibility is tantalizing, though "maybe Sayles won that one, too?"

Told that, no, "Union Dues" is Sayles' second novel, Casey pulled himself to attention. "Aha!" he cried, laughing. "The field is clear!" And he began to hum, loudly.

The strains of the "William Tell Overture" echoed in the night.