Rita Mae Brown works very hard at being high-spirited in "Southern Discomfort," and her heart is in all the right places, so it's with genuine regret that I must report that, as a work of fiction, the novel simply falls flat. Readers accustomed to the raucous humor of Brown's previous novels--notably her popular examinations of lesbian relationships, "Rubyfruit Jungle" and "Six of One"--will find that here she is straining for laughs and only rarely finding them.

Perhaps the problem is that Brown can't really decide whether she wants to be funny or serious. Whatever the case, "Southern Discomfort" is a novel in which much of the humor, such as it is, depends upon the ornate and improbable names of the characters--a sure sign, if ever there was one, that a humorist is in trouble.

Consider, for example, the name of the central character: Hortensia Reedmuller Banastre. She is the unhappy wife of the equally unhappy Carwyn Banastre, who seeks his pleasures in the arms of Banana Mae Parker, a prostitute who labors in partnership with one Blue Rhonda Latrec. Soon Hortensia finds her own pleasures in the company of Hercules Jinks, a muscular black youth nearly a dozen years her junior. Among the others who make appearances in the tale are: Beukema Toe Water-Van Aken, Peregrine Cranmer, Alton Riddleberger, Illona Pagent Reynolds and her daughter Peppermint Reynolds, Icellee Deltaven, Cedrenus Shackleford, Sugar Guerrant and Devadetta Corinth.

All of these sidesplitting folks make their home in and about Montgomery, the storied capital of Alabama, between 1918 and 1928. It's a conservative town in a conservative time, and a hotbed of hypocrisy: "Each resident views a city with a particular set of references. Blue Rhonda and Banana Mae looked at Montgomery, Ala., in terms of sex. The town resembled a stud farm, although everybody lied through their teeth about sex . Maybe the real difference between Blue Rhonda, Banana Mae and the rest of Montgomery's citizens was that they told the truth. In this world, lying, fornicating and thieving are prerogatives of the sane. Small wonder that the two women, or any prostitutes, for that matter, were regarded as nuts."

Comstockery is in the air, its chief acolyte appearing in the person of a minister named Linton Ray: "No drinking, no smoking, no dancing, no anything--this was Linton's creed. Unlike other good shepherds who fleeced their flocks, Linton believed every word of drivel he spouted. . . . In his congregation the absence of feeling was declared a deliverance from temptation; emptiness was spiritual triumph." His particular targets are the prostitutes and Demon Rum, and Prohibition is his great dream. Yet when it is fulfilled, life for some reason goes on pretty much the way it always did; laws may change, but hypocrisy is forever.

This theme--the clash between appearance and reality--is Brown's chief preoccupation. On the surface, the marriage of Hortensia and Carwyn Banastre is secure if not unduly happy; but in actuality it is "a nerve ending in a dead hand," with both husband and wife looking elsewhere for fulfillment. The cruel difference is that society is willing to wink at the husband's whoring so long as he does it in private; but the affair between Hortensia and her black lover is totally forbidden, not merely because the youth is black but because a socially respectable woman is not supposed to harbor strong sexual passions or, need it be said, to seek satisfaction of them outside the boundaries of her marriage.

The point that Brown wants to make is that people must be free to live their own lives, unfettered by the petty rules and prejudices of society. Failing to do that, we live hypocritically. She summarizes it all in a paragraph in which Hortensia, after her lover's death, talks to the two prostitutes:

" 'You do as you please and the hell with rules and regulations made by somebody else. Before he died Hercules asked me to run away with him. I said I'd have to think about it. I know now I never would have done it. I lacked the courage and I probably still lack it. I couldn't break the rules openly.' She laughed at herself. 'But I could break them in secret.' Drew in a breath. 'But then who doesn't?' "

This theme, which would have been startling to readers at the time the novel is set, is pretty old hat in the time it is actually published; not even the Oedipal sex scene that Brown tosses in as an afterthought has much shock value. Brown is a capable writer, a trenchant observer of social mores and, as she's demonstrated in the past, a person of considerable wit. But in "Southern Discomfort" she seems to be going through the motions, with unfortunate results.