Cato Caldwell Douglass, the central character of John A. Williams' novel "!Click Song," shoulders several distinct, yet connected, burdens. As a writer, Cato's trying to make a good and honest living in a back-stabbing literary world where "art comes after moneymaking." As a black writer, Cato's working to maintain his personal vision in a white-dominated industry that asks black authors to turn out "nigger-in-the-projects" stories one year, and tells them "we aren't doing anything black" the next. As a husband, he's struggling to hold together a marriage to his Jewish wife, Allis, despite her father's hysterical objections to the marriage. And as a father to three sons--one a Spanish poet he's never even met--Cato is searching for the way "to be able to be some part of what his sons think he should be."

"!Click Song," essentially, is Cato's autobiography--the portrait of an artist and family man from the period just after his stint as a marine in the Second World War through his seventh novel, "Unmarked Graves," roughly 25 years later. Cato tells the story himself in a style that, like a good autobiographer's, is intimate, reflective and deft. Interspersing meditation with drama, Cato builds his past with precision; even recollections of violent action are orderly and clear. Minor characters--from a fatherly Italian landlord to an aging, seductive literary doyenne--spring to life quickly.

The question arises: Why care about the memoirs of a make-believe writer when the world is already swimming in the memoirs of real ones? A small answer lies in that Cato may be a safe mask for Williams, who, like his fictional protagonist, was in World War II, took a journalist's trip through the South in the '60s ("This Is My Country Too"), teaches in New Jersey, has three sons, and has written several strong and important novels, among them "The Man Who Cried I Am" and "The Junior Bachelor Society," recently resurrected as the NBC TV movie "Sophisticated Gents." A larger answer is that Cato's memoirs are charged by a tragedy that keeps both author and reader plunging forward.

This tragedy is the suicide of Paul Cummings/Kaminsky, longtime close friend of Cato. Paul, a white writer at odds with his own Jewish identity, is Cato's buddy from college writing class days. Paul and Cato are literary rivals, alter egos. As both move to New York, divorce their first wives, remarry, and begin getting "stitched into the proper literary framework," their friendship erratically evolves. After several years of their knowing each other, Cato explains: "Our friendship existed only because of the tension caused by the enmity of our kinds. Like matter must beget antimatter; like antimatter simply cannot be without matter; we were particles of a scheme, magnetized, in motion, quarking under impetuses not quite our own."

For all his insight as a narrator, Cato never fully understands Paul's life, or his subsequent suicide, and this shortcoming is a failure of "!Click Song." As the novel progresses, Paul's career acts mainly as a balance, and contrast, to Cato's. Paul sleeps with the disastrously ugly editor of a literary review, but Cato doesn't. Paul drinks with the right crowd, Cato doesn't. Paul wins a National Book Award for a novel modeled, in part, on Cato; Cato, growing ever more critical of racism in publishing, eventually finds himself cut out from any real shot at the literary laurels. As Paul's career skyrockets, his private life goes to shambles. As Cato's career runs into brick walls, his personal life grows ever more fulfilled, ever more radiant.

Williams does a wizard-like job of intercutting scenes in this 400-page book. Like a savvy movie director, he takes a scene like Cato's having lunch with his editor and runs it against a scene of Cato at Paul's funeral. Like a movie about writers, though, "!Click Song" sometimes errs in showing us more about the literary scene than about what's going on inside the writers' heads. We might comprehend more fully Paul's suicide--and Cato's fulfillment--were Cato allowed to tell us more about what he and Paul are actually writing. Two of Cato's novels, for example, are explained for the reader in a small footnote.

If "!Click Song" is sometimes slow and befuddling in its analysis of the two writers' careers, the book sings when it focuses on Cato's life with Allis and his three sons. Cato writes about lovemaking frankly, but gently. Several chapters end with Cato and Allis making love as a married couple should--diffusing all the conflicts and wounds of the day with simple, reviving touch. Cato, who relishes sitting naked and drinking wine with his wife at the age of 50, is one of the more tender males to pass through contemporary American fiction.

Cato's--and Williams'--greatest success in "!Click Song" comes in merging family life with political issues. In the most powerful scene of the novel, Cato has a showdown with his son Glenn, a black child by Cato's first marriage. Glenn has come home on vacation from his freshman year at Antioch, in part to meet his new half-brother, the racially mixed Mackland. Glenn repeatedly combs his Afro in the bathroom, leaving hair on the floor for Allis to clean up. When Cato asks Glenn to clean up after himself, he is shocked to see in his own son "hostility, the posture of his own private, youthful revolution against Whitey and all the Nee-groes who had dealings with him--or her." The "her" Cato refers to, of course, is Allis. When Glenn refuses to clean up his hair, Cato slaps him and later says to him: "Antagonism. So much of it's directed along the easier channels. You know, toward the people who aren't going to do anything about it for one reason or another. Not fair. No good . . . Antagonize the cops. Bomb a precinct house. Kick Lindsay's a--. Shoot up the Congress. Not your family. Not your friends."

"Clicking"--a metaphor for contact--exists as a sound effect in "!Click Song": the click of a kiss, the click of a typewriter, the noise of "long-extinct beings communicating with !clicks." Clicking also exists as a concept--the click of an idea, and the click of a person's life when all the disparate parts suddenly lock together. Cato is a man attuned to clicking, and his ability to click with the world, and with his wife and children, seems crucial to his survival in a world which destroys others. "!Click Song" is Cato's guide to holding it all together--a crucial guide in a world where so many things, and people, fall apart.