The survival story has a ready-made plot. A group of people get stranded in the wilderness. They endure for weeks, even months, but steadily deteriorate. Some of them eventually make it out, whether under their own power or by fortuitous rescue. Some don't. The reader's interest hinges mainly on wondering which characters will survive and how, and on a morbid observation of the process by which starvation gradually strips a human being of much of what we call human.

The boldest thing about Charles Fox's first novel is his decision to embed a survival tale in the larger, potentially more significant, context of a small Idaho town that his stranded hunters struggle to regain. In early December two pairs of men in an old Ford and a pickup truck head into the Sawtooth Mountains above the archetypal Western hamlet of Cope. The first blizzard of winter comes, forcing the vehicles into deep drifts; the men, who are somewhat lost, wait for rescue. An apparently familiar scenario; but Fox's hunters have dashed into the mountains not to shoot deer but to try to kill each other. A classic tangle of adultery, envy and loyalty has brought these men to the kind of duel they know best -- by cars and guns. But none of them really wants to shoot-out, and when the snow imprisons their vehicles, they grudgingly join up to fight the "noble" enemy, Nature.

Because both the circumstances that drive the men into the hills and the machinations by which only one of them emerges alive have repercussions in Cope, this novel engages moral issues larger and more ambiguous than mere survival. The author's strategy requires him to mix genres almost intrinsically antipathetic -- the survival drama, with its narrow focus and limited point of view, with the kaleidoscopic social novel, dictating a point of view that wanders among minor characters while it adumbrates the cliques and factions forming in supermarkets and living rooms. That some of the technical difficulties arising from this clash remain half-solved is not surprising.

The central story, of four men stuck in the wilderness, unfolds with convincing grimness. There are, however, flaws. Fox is given to the usual exaggerations, about snowfields collapsing with trap-door suddenness, or visibility reduced in a blizzard to 10-12 feet (in worst western storms visibility seldom decreases below 100 feet). His survivors shoot deer to fend off starvation but never melt snow for water, without which they wouldn't last a week.

Fox has two unfortunate stylistic penchants: for a mannered, laconic Western prose, Larry McMurtry gone cute ("The winter sun warmed pale as a stepmother's love"), and for direct commentary on his characters that reminds us that the author is shoving them around his stage (". . . Poulsen, too, looked into his life as he had never done before, and at the bottom of it saw how he had trapped himself by his own fear"). On the other hand, the dialogue is perfect, alert to indigenous ironies like Coulter's euphoria at the idea of selling their story to the movies when they get out.

"We could get a million bucks. That's what some of them get."

"Yeah?"

"Like those guys on the football team that crashed in the Andes. Remember?"

"Where they ate each other?"

"Yeah."

Three things redeem "The Noble Enemy," justifying its ambition. One is that Charles Fox knows small Western towns, knows every detail by which their inhabitants measure out their lives with television, seasonal jobs, bar fights and sexual adventures. Another is the portrait of Arizo, a Portuguese-Indian drifter, one-time pit-dog handler, who arrives in Cope to find the love he never thought would come his way -- and death by gangrene. Most important of the three is the eerie inevitability of Coulter's fate after his solo return. Greeted as a hero, written up in Life, whisked to New York to be on "To Tell the Truth," the man is powerless to forestall the spirit of Nemesis that gathers in the very streets where he grew up, until he is faced with a survival crisis wholly unlike the one he had braved in the mountains.