Noel Roth has dreams; even a 36-year-old suburbanite with a successful haberdashery chain in White Plains can have dreams: "Noel was dreaming that he was a single-engine airplane and he was flying down the Hudson River. When he came to the George Washington Bridge, he had a choice that he was very aware of -- to fly over the bridge or to fly under the bridge. He flew under the bridge. Then he was no longer the plane, but a passenger in the plane, and a woman was the pilot. Noel was frightened."

That was before his wife, Susan, died in a grotesque and embarrassing accident in Manhattan -- she and a lover were hit by a falling air conditioner en route to a tryst; it made the front page of the Daily News and triggered an almost compulsive interest in Detective Sergeant Walter Rudd, who began to follow Noel around, making frequent use of a cigarette lighter with a tiny camera inside. After Susan's death, another image begins to obsess Noel: "It is hopeless. It is beyond my control. I am out of control. My life is out of control. I am speeding down an endless hill. I remember all those old gangster movies where they would strap the opposing mobster in a car and send him down a mountainside. That is me."

It is 1973, Richard Nixon is in trouble, and Roth (a staunch liberal all his life) begins to find links between himself and the beleaguered president. He tells his therapist that he and Nixon are "like two innocent gangsters strapped into the front seat of a car... speeding downhill." For weeks after Susan's funeral, he sits in the woods behind his suburban home, reading "Six Crises" and following the turns of the president's fate on a small portable radio with failing batteries. He is finally lured from this self-exile by his best friend, Phil Radcliff, who takes him to a Catskills resort for an orgy of food, gold and sex. But that comes after the Fire Island episode, where he first encounters Nevers, the beautiful and intensely kinky woman who introduces him to the joys of self-abasement.

"We are moving into a very kinky era," according to Phil's wife, Phoebe. "S&M and B&D are going to engulf the U.S.A." Noel immediately changes the subject when he hears this remark; whatever may happen to the country, he sees the possibility that they may engulf him. By that time, months after Susan's death, he is visiting Nevers three nights a week, coming home barely in time to get up for breakfast and try to convince his children (Beth, 13, and David, 11) that he has been home for hours. As the affair progresses, the wounds from nocturnal encounters with a whip become a serious complication in his life; they make it impossible, for example, for him to sit down at a cocktail party where he is approached by a variety of predatory females who describe one another quite accurately as sharks.

The kinkiness embodied in Nevers also threatens to engulf the book; it is the most spectacular element in the story and the one that will predictably elicit the most comment, but it is only one more symptom -- along with Nixon and Rudd, the airplane dream and the image of the car running downhill out of control -- one more element tossed by novelist Zacharia into Noel Roth's midlife crisis. This is a first novel and, considering the violently centrifugal elements he has included, it is remarkable how well Zacharia keeps his material under control. The mixture is richer than a brief review can show; it includes Roth's dreams of a fleeting moment of glory as a high school basketball player, his dissatisfaction with the identity of a successful suburban haberdasher, his feelings of inferiority to Susan, who is an artist, his reaction to the death of his father, and above all his feelings of guilt at Susan's death and its possible link to the match trick of the book's title.

The match trick is a simple, unorthodox, athletic and quite vulgar way of extinguishing a match; Noel does it when he gets drunk and before performing it at parties he makes a little speech to the audience: "It is a physical demonstration of absolute control of my body for a fleeting moment, two or three seconds... It is the climax of athletic achievement. Pay attention, for you will never see it again.Never. Before I start, there is one thing you should be aware of... Every time I have done the match trick, someone in the audience -- within a week... Within a week -- someone -- death." Within a week, Susan is dead.

A death like this, coming when he was probably on the verge of a crisis anyway, gives Noel a particularly choppy passage through the midlife problem, and Zacharia has set down the ingredients very precisely and in a readable style. Under its gaudy and vulgar trappings, "The Match Trick" is a serious book and the result of careful observation.