Herbert Gold has become the trusty California perennial among writers. Every year brings another flowering, whether it be a collection of shorter works (six so far), a memoir or, more likely, a novel. "True Love" is Gold's 14th work in that department, and he has apparently become such an established bloom that no editor dares do the necessary pruning. For though "True Love" has interludes of great and winning charm, it feels tossed off, a sketch for a novel rather than the fully realized product we have every right to expect.

Gold's protagonist this time is a 44-year-old, twice-divorced lawyer named Watkins (no last names, please), who is cursed with being an incurable romantic--"a love pervert" as an acquaintance nicely put it--trapped in the flesh factory that is California in the '80s.

When the book opens, Watkins is being gently shunted aside by Bethany, a married woman who fears he is becoming too attached to their cozy, afternoons-only liaisons. But Bethany, being a caring person and not a little attached to Watkins, has taken pains to soften the fall. Unbeknownst to him, she has taken out, in his name, one of those personal ads in the San Francisco Bay Guardian where the hip advertise for instant relationships, collated the answers and arranged the most promising in numerical order for Watkins' delectation.

And Watkins, being an obliging sort not apt to give trouble to either his lover or his author, spends most of the book dutifully investigating Bethany's list, tracking down a Los Angeles show biz attorney, an Iranian professor of sociology, a "reformed" lesbian who lives in "Huckleberry Farouk" style and a Las Vegas card dealer, hoping against hope that one of them will turn out to be the one true love he is becoming increasingly afraid dear departed Bethany was.

These amatory adventures give Gold ample opportunity to display his strengths as a novelist. First, there is the writing style, smooth, seductive and sly, carefully constructed to pull the reader along with a minimum of strain. Better still is Gold's ability as an observer of the social scene; his eye for cultural detail and nuance at time rivals even Tom Wolfe's. The sample advertisements Watkins reads, plus the letters Bethany's ad elicits, while not exactly Miss Lonelyhearts material, are worked for all they're worth, and the book's descriptions of Davis, the trendy California university town where Watkins lives, are exceptionally deft, as the following indicates:

"Bicycles are tangled everywhere; they sailed like air-powered vessels down the slight slope of the parking lot, past the automobiles which looked like an exhibition of anti-Detroit (Mercedes, Porsche, BMW, VW, Toyota, Datsun, Honda and a few museum Chevies with bodies eaten out by Eastern winter salt, smuggled across the Donner Pass by immigrants). The Quiche-Me-Quick had just replaced the Fro-Fro Yougurt, but the Fotomat was holding steady, guaranteeing Your Fotos by Four If in by Ten or Free Film."

Gold even turns Watkins, nameless though he may be, into a surprisingly sympathetic character, continually battling "the disgrace, the immaturity, the griefness of his hunger for true love." But while most of the components for a successful novel are here, the author never seems to have thought things through enough to assemble one. Halfway through "True Love" he changes direction and inexplicably sticks poor Watkins into a men's group run by a cranky, Italian know-it-all named Pete Positano and the entire narrative machinery grinds to a halt in a welter of obscure psychobabble. Even if Leonard Michaels had not assembled the conscious-raising circle to end all circles in "The Men's Club," Gold's attempts at parody would still come off hackneyed and unamusing.

The heart of the problem with "True Love" is that Gold has been allowed to coast along on the palpable virtues of eye and style. No one has bothered to tell him that his dialogue tends to tinny, that many of his situations are forced, that he misses satiric targets as often as he hits them. "True Love" is a pleasant, undemanding novel of manners, and its sympathy for Watkins and his quest for fulfillment are more genuine than might be expected. But it feels padded as often as it does poignant, a short story blown up to unseemly length, and one finishes it wishing someone somewhere could convince Herbert Gold to push himself harder than he is in the habit of doing.