The territory of Laurel Goldman's first novel lies somewhere just east of craziness, just west of sanity. It is a region that she delineates as effectively as if she had drawn it on a map--a region of sudden and unpredictable storms, a topsy-turvy place with warm winters and bone-chilling summers, a territory whose boundaries are always lost in the fog. For people like Goldman's narrator, Jay Davidson, this place is home.

Davidson, who is also known as Jesse James on his stays in the mental hospital, gets through life by hiding out in the fog, gathering information. He lurks outside doors, listening. He sneaks into dark rooms to read private papers. His walks down the corridors of the hospital are reconnaissance missions, fueling him with the facts he needs to get him through his days. What he needs to know are the small things: gossip and grocery lists, bits of dialogue, pieces of daydreams.

"It is not entertainment I am seeking," Davidson tells us. "It is understanding. Understanding, understanding and more understanding. I will stuff myself with it, sniff it up with every pore, cram it into every orifice. Someday it will pay off. Everything will fall into its proper place, and I will, at last, understand."

The halls of a mental hospital are, of course, heady territory for a snoop. We learn along with Jay/Jesse that Willy hides tuna sandwiches under his mattress and that a member of the staff digs those sandwiches out and eats them. We know that the Princess keeps certain souvenirs: a colored pebble, a swatch of silk and a tassel from an old dance program. We hear the details of Hamilton's love life and Silas' breakdown. We get to read the notes that pretty, frazzled Gemma has written to herself and then strewn about as carelessly as her cigarette ash.

Laurel Goldman's writing is strong and bleakly funny. She exposes the silly inner workings of the mental hospital with its Ward Government meetings and Daily Living meetings, its Leisure Group outings and the reports from the patients' newspaper, News in a Nutshell. At the same time, she convinces us that there is something appealing, even compelling, about the place. Goldman's hospital has the hectic coziness of a nursery school. Games are played. Rules are followed. Sometimes tantrums are thrown. In occupational therapy, patients learn to make belts and paper flowers. At parties they are served potato chips and cookies and Hawaiian Punch. When they misbehave they are sent to their rooms. When they are good, they are taken on field trips to the museum.

There is an orderliness about all of this that is reassuring for Jay Davidson. To leave the hospital means to give it all up, and, besides, there are only two ways out. Either the state hospital transfer agents come for you--"Dressed in whites they slip onto the ward, antiseptic ghosts, faceless, nameless, even to staff, bloodless as the title they bear . . . The patients who go with them know they are contaminated. Now that they are going, we want them gone. We don't want to catch their disease or be reminded of it. We only want them to go now; go and close the door behind them"--or else there is discharge, freedom, and you go out through another, equally terrifying, door.

When Jay Davidson is released from the hospital, he doesn't especially want to go, but Goldman's readers are more than ready. After 150 pages inside the ward, most of the spying has been done, most of the jokes are wearing thin. The inmates finally are not so different from the nursery school children who have just one riddle to tell. It's time for Jay Davidson to graduate.

In the outside world, Davidson falls in love with the two young women who have sublet his apartment, Carrie and Nora. "Carrie leans on my left arm, Nora dangles on my right, as we dash across the avenue. Carrie Nora. I like them both around me. A pinch of this one, a dash of that one. The soup is thick and murky but warm and nourishing."

The trouble begins when this soup curdles and the ingredients separate. Nora moves into her own apartment and suddenly this is no happy threesome, arms linked, crossing the street. Instead, each woman has hold of an arm and is tugging with all her might. This is Jay Davidson in that middle territory once again, being pulled in two directions. In many respects, this section of the book embodies the whole story and gives it new energy, but Goldman does not let Jay Davidson linger here. A fast 70 pages and he's off, leaving both women, embarking on a new episode--a cross-country bus trip with his pals from the hospital, Silas and Hamilton.

The bus ride is a strange, dark journey, an odyssey that tips the balance of the book. There are haunting visions and unexplained events: A relief bus driver never shows up in Ohio, a bus stop is bombed out in Indiana. There is a hunchback on board and a child named Midas. There is a tiny crystal ball from a Crackerjacks box. Each of these facts seems to shimmer with significance, but pieced together their message dims. Goldman's writing never loses its punch, but her story veers out of control like the ill-fated bus, which leaves the highway and comes to rest in a field of mud. In the end, Jay Davidson lives up to his nickname. Like Jesse James, he eludes us all, slipping away to unknown parts, uncharted territory.