Roger Damon, a successful editor in late middle age, is awakened from sleep by a threatening phone call and thereby launched on an odyssey of self-discovering through the valley of death, real and metaphorical. Damon's anonymous caller hints darkly at some episode in Damon's past as the motive for revenge. Thus Irwin Shaw is able to retrace Damon's history -- at some length, Damon being the greatest soliloquizer since the Dane, and no less melancholy -- while at the same time propelling him forward through the present toward the inevitable, ultimate confrontation with his adversary, with death and with himself.

Promising material. Shaw has never flinched from the great theme, the large canvas, and so it is fitting that he take on the tough business of delineating and making vibrant and meaningful the personal eschatology of a man established from the first page as a paragon of our culture's more esteemed private and professional virtues. Here, then, is one of our acknowledged masters writing of a world which he knows intimately, obviously bursting to dispense the wisdom and art gained in close to 50 years of very heavy work indeed.

Promising, but it doesn't come off: not as a novel, in spite of numerous artful and a few insightful passages. Shaw has set himself a difficult, artistically exhausting task, for any novel that shoots for 80- or 90-percent earnestness has to lean on insight and style to sustain the reader's attention and captivate his mind and soul. There can't be any real plot, only -- as here -- a series of encounters and meditations, which can't claim the name of action. Thus Damon, present on every page, must play all the parts (or does, given the way Shaw has chosen to construct the novel). As a result, only two extended episodes, in which Damon crisscrosses Manhattan in a mad shopping spree and during which he lies dream-torn and hallucinating in a hospital following major surgery, have real life and art at their core. The balance of the book proceeds by fits and starts, lurching inconsistently from scenes which make little contextual sense to brief stretches of writing which recall the Irwin Shaw, but none of it of a piece, at least not long enough or sustained enough to acquire the momentum which many would say lies at the heart of novel-writing. It's not a question of pace or page-turnability, this momentum; it's a matter of rhythm and inexorability in the unfolding -- largo or allegretto makes no difference -- which engages, then swallows, the reader.

This doesn't happen. Damon never really engages our sympathy beyond the facts of his predicament. His traceable falls from grace or favor, which he reviews in an effort to construct an "enemies' list" on which his antagonist's name must presumably be found and deduced, consist of episodes which arouse our indifference or even envy. Damon is a Don Juan of the first order and has a number of not very interesting seductions to answer for. And near-misses. And bouts of high ethical behavior which have earned him a sworn enemy or two.

Sadly, none of this is made very interesting, affecting or even relevant. The book is -- well -- tired. Shaw's recent output has been prodigious and it shows here. Not that, like Harold Robbins, he's said the hell with it and settled for regurgitating formulas, contemptuously sure of his established audience. But tired this book sounds. It lacks freshness; of image, of heart, of spirit and art. Without those qualities, its obvious strivings for high-mindedness scrabble into sententiousness; its language slips too often into banality; its plot shrivels.

Irwin Shaw is a fine and serious writer. In "Acceptable Losses," as in those of his works which will linger in posterity, he hasn't shirked the challenge of the novelist's task, which is to take a view, as the English say, of the world and its workings, and to particularize that view through characterization and plot. To enlighten and entertain, the latter shyly drawing aside the curtain to reveal the former.

It's not easy to stay true to the goals of the craft, especially with as much time in the outfit as Shaw has put in. Time and time again he has reached heights far above the reach of this uncertain, fitful book. Probably he will reach them again. But in this novel, where the protagonist is interesting only when drunk or anesthetized, Shaw hasn't had a good day.