There was a time when Nicholas von Hoffman's column was not just read, it was also talked about and sometimes even waved high as a banner of rebellion. He was the most radical of the syndicated columnists who appeared regularly in American newspapers. And so it was perhaps inevitable that when America ended her flirtation with radicalism and the Me Generation established itself finally and fully, his star would fade.

Now comes Nicholas von Hoffman, the novelist, and "Organized Crimes" may well be the book to start him on a second career. It is historical fiction of a kind: although the period it deals with is just 50 years past, Chicago in the '30s, it is crammed with accurate and fascinating social detail of the kind usually lavished on novels dealing with periods more distant in time. And yet it is a novel based upon personal experience, although not specifically on Nicholas von Hoffman's own.

When he decided to become a journalist von Hoffman was able to walk right into a job as labor reporter for the Chicago Daily News, without having served any newspaper apprenticeship. How did he manage that? Because for many years he had worked for the legendary Saul Alinsky, neighborhood organizer, social activist and grass-roots radical. And Alinsky's name carried such weight around town that if von Hoffman was okay with Saul he was okay with the News. Saul Alinsky was as much a Chicago original as Bathhouse John or Hinky Dink McKenna, Dickie Daley or Mike Royko. And it was part of the Alinsky myth that as a young sociology student at the University of Chicago, he had penetrated the Capone mob for purposes of academic investigation and had written definitively (though in general terms) on the structure and activities of the criminal organization. Alinsky, a superb, wise-cracking storyteller, must have regaled Nicholas von Hoffman often with these tales of Frank Nitti, Machine Gun Jack McGurn et al. And so, in writing this novel of Chicago, high and low, in the '30s, von Hoffman has simply expropriated these experiences and handed them over to one of his protagonists, Allan Archibald. No crime in this. The biography Alinsky deserved was never really written, and this strange meeting of the academic world with the criminal was simply too good to let lie unused.

The only real shame here is that von Hoffman has given it all to such a wimpy character. Allan Archibald is one of those naive North Shore boys who believes, as one of those in the gangster world tells him, that "nothing bad can be done" to him. And then comes the warning: "You think you're armor-plated. You're not, though."

Archibald is less a full-blooded character than a structural device, for his father, a banker, is tied to the crumbling empire of Samuel Insull, the Chicago utilities magnate, and through him to Mayor Big Bill Thompson and the dirty world of Chicago politics. And von Hoffman's purpose here is to demonstrate that the "organized crimes" he describes involved not just the bootleggers, whoremongers and shooters of the mob, but the "best" people as well.

If Archibald and family were all that "Organized Crimes" had to offer, then it would not have much to recommend it. But he shares the spotlight with Irena Giron, a Polish girl from Back of the Yards who is smart and enterprising enough to have found a place for herself as a graduate assistant in the University of Chicago sociology department. She meets Allan there, of course, and she is as beautiful as he is handsome. But more than that, she is a living, breathing human being, a character with a rich ethnic background. Yet she is indeed her own person, even something of a pioneer -- a good, solid sociologist, intelligent, assertive. One wonders what she would see in a WASP stiff like Archibald -- and before the book is done she wonders that herself. Book World Tale of Chicago Past ORGANIZED CRIMES By Nicholas von Hoffman Harper & Row. 274 pp. $14.95 By Bruce Cook

The reviewer's most recent book is "Brecht in Exile."

There was a time when Nicholas von Hoffman's column was not just read, it was also talked about and sometimes even waved high as a banner of rebellion. He was the most radical of the syndicated columnists who appeared regularly in American newspapers. And so it was perhaps inevitable that when America ended her flirtation with radicalism and the Me Generation established itself finally and fully, his star would fade.

Now comes Nicholas von Hoffman, the novelist, and "Organized Crimes" may well be the book to start him on a second career. It is historical fiction of a kind: although the period it deals with is just 50 years past, Chicago in the '30s, it is crammed with accurate and fascinating social detail of the kind usually lavished on novels dealing with periods more distant in time. And yet it is a novel based upon personal experience, although not specifically on Nicholas von Hoffman's own.

When he decided to become a journalist von Hoffman was able to walk right into a job as labor reporter for the Chicago Daily News, without having served any newspaper apprenticeship. How did he manage that? Because for many years he had worked for the legendary Saul Alinsky, neighborhood organizer, social activist and grass-roots radical. And Alinsky's name carried such weight around town that if von Hoffman was okay with Saul he was okay with the News. Saul Alinsky was as much a Chicago original as Bathhouse John or Hinky Dink McKenna, Dickie Daley or Mike Royko. And it was part of the Alinsky myth that as a young sociology student at the University of Chicago, he had penetrated the Capone mob for purposes of academic investigation and had written definitively (though in general terms) on the structure and activities of the criminal organization. Alinsky, a superb, wise-cracking storyteller, must have regaled Nicholas von Hoffman often with these tales of Frank Nitti, Machine Gun Jack McGurn et al. And so, in writing this novel of Chicago, high and low, in the '30s, von Hoffman has simply expropriated these experiences and handed them over to one of his protagonists, Allan Archibald. No crime in this. The biography Alinsky deserved was never really written, and this strange meeting of the academic world with the criminal was simply too good to let lie unused.

The only real shame here is that von Hoffman has given it all to such a wimpy character. Allan Archibald is one of those naive North Shore boys who believes, as one of those in the gangster world tells him, that "nothing bad can be done" to him. And then comes the warning: "You think you're armor-plated. You're not, though."

Archibald is less a full-blooded character than a structural device, for his father, a banker, is tied to the crumbling empire of Samuel Insull, the Chicago utilities magnate, and through him to Mayor Big Bill Thompson and the dirty world of Chicago politics. And von Hoffman's purpose here is to demonstrate that the "organized crimes" he describes involved not just the bootleggers, whoremongers and shooters of the mob, but the "best" people as well.

If Archibald and family were all that "Organized Crimes" had to offer, then it would not have much to recommend it. But he shares the spotlight with Irena Giron, a Polish girl from Back of the Yards who is smart and enterprising enough to have found a place for herself as a graduate assistant in the University of Chicago sociology department. She meets Allan there, of course, and she is as beautiful as he is handsome. But more than that, she is a living, breathing human being, a character with a rich ethnic background. Yet she is indeed her own person, even something of a pioneer -- a good, solid sociologist, intelligent, assertive. One wonders what she would see in a WASP stiff like Archibald -- and before the book is done she wonders that herself. What more than Irena Giron has "Organized Crimes" to offer? Why, Chicago -- the whole swarming mess of America's most vital city at a climactic time in its history. Von Hoffman gets the feeling of Chicago down on paper here -- no mean feat in itself -- and he shows a real understanding of how the city worked then and to some extent still works today.

The one flaw worth mentioning has to do with that psychopathic Capone mobster, Machine Gun Jack McGurn, a character in the novel and a very well realized one at that. Von Hoffman seems to believe he was really as Irish as his name would indicate, but McGurn was actually a Taylor Street Italian who adopted the nom de guerre in a fit of whimsy.

But such quibbles aside, this is one of the best Chicago novels in quite a while -- and that, believe me, is putting von Hoffman in pretty fast company. One only wishes it were a little longer -- had more characters, more inside dope, more wild scenes -- and how many novels lately have you wished were longer? What more than Irena Giron has "Organized Crimes" to offer? Why, Chicago -- the whole swarming mess of America's most vital city at a climactic time in its history. Von Hoffman gets the feeling of Chicago down on paper here -- no mean feat in itself -- and he shows a real understanding of how the city worked then and to some extent still works today.

The one flaw worth mentioning has to do with that psychopathic Capone mobster, Machine Gun Jack McGurn, a character in the novel and a very well realized one at that. Von Hoffman seems to believe he was really as Irish as his name would indicate, but McGurn was actually a Taylor Street Italian who adopted the nom de guerre in a fit of whimsy.

But such quibbles aside, this is one of the best Chicago novels in quite a while -- and that, believe me, is putting von Hoffman in pretty fast company. One only wishes it were a little longer -- had more characters, more inside dope, more wild scenes -- and how many novels lately have you wished were longer?