Since the appearance of his first novel, "Malcolm," more than 20 years ago, James Purdy has abeen praised for his evocation of precise physical details, especially details of depravity and squalor. "Mourners Below," like "Malcolm" and an earlier novella, "63: Dream Palace," follows young naifs on adventures of corruption, and contains powerful and startling moments. But from the beginning, Purdy's power has stemmed more from a sense of place than from the psychologies of the people he portrayed. In this new novel, even the physical setting has become uninteresting, and it must twll us something about the nature of fiction that when the human vision is not there, every other component of the narrative texture deteriorates.

Set in a small midwestern town, the book follows 17-year-old Duane Bledsoe's struggle to come to terms with the wartime deaths of his older half-brothers, Justin and Douglas. His father, Eugene, abandoned years before by Duane's mother, cannot bring himself even to acknowledge that his older sons are dead, and so young Duane finds the only outlet for his grief in the sympathies of the Bledsoes' elderly cook and housekeeper, Mrs. Newsom.

This domestic triangle is sufficiently polarized to generate energy, and Purdy would have done well to focus his attention here. Duane's festering grief distorts his personality and perceptions. He begins to see his brothers' ghosts, and comes to believe that they are watching him, measuring him against their own lives and achievements. Mrs. Newsom recognizes the boy's distress, but also recognizes that, although Eugene cannot bring himself to share his sonhs grief, he resents the closeness that develops between Duane and herself. Some of Purdy's best scenes are of the troubled teenager and the old housekeeper washing and drying the dishes in the kitchen after diner, sharing confidences, keeping their voices low so as not to arouse the suspicions of the elder Bledsoe in the next room.

But even in this restricted setting there is a lack of flow. Purdy's characters are isolated points, cut off not only from one another, but from us, the readers. We never feel that we know them. One moment Duane bares his soul to Mrs. Newsom; the next, he screams at her and storms out of the room. It may be that this is the way a disturbed young man would behave, but we expect more from fiction than the mere presentation of a character's actions; we expect to be made to understand, however subliminally, why a character acts the way he does.

The story goes on to describe Duane's encounter with Estelle Dumont, a libidinous local heiress who was the lover of his dead brother, Justin. Estelle plans a sumptuous masquerade ball and invites Duane in order to seduce him, though why she wants to -- whether it is in memory of Justin, or to satisfy her own ego -- Purdy does not make clear. The situation turns murkier still when Duane arrives on the appointed night only to face a long, pointless scene in which Estelle and her dressmaker bicker over how best to outfit him for the ball. The ball itself is then tossed off in a snippet or two of stale description ("moving lights of all kinds," "streamers and pennants hung from the roof as if they were unnumerable tongues of flame") and the seduction scene, surely meant to be the novel's pivotal moment, is played out perfunctorily in a back room. On his way home the next morning, Duane is beaten and raped with a broken-off broomstick by a couple of roughnecks whom Justin had insulted four years before.

Here, as in earlier Purdy novels, there is a dreamlike quality to the narrative. But Purdy borrows the worst quality of dreams: His plot is sloppy in the same way that dreams are sloppy. His story moves as if through a series of afterthoughts, while his narrative vision is continually focusing on inconsequential details, like a car that keeps stalling at the dreariest points on a road.

One wonders at what point a work like this went wrong. To examine how a community of characters is affected by the loss of one or more of its members is a compelling project for fiction and one which Purdy handled more successfully in his novel, "The Nephew." In "Mourners Below" the plot thins early, the characters dim, and the writing languishes to a point where, near the end, there are egregious grammatical errors no editor should have let slip by. What is missing from this book is more than a caring human vision; it is plain care: an author's care for his people, his places and his medium of expression.