The question of what it is like to be old --

how one lives, how one deals with loneliness, sexuality and the burden of memories, how one gets through the days -- these are the concerns of Richard Bausch's third novel, "The Last Good Time."

The novel deals with Edward Cakes, a widower and retired violinist who lives alone in a small apartment in an unnamed northern city. His best friend is Arthur, a curmudgeonly ex-English teacher of 89 who used to live upstairs but now lives in a high-rise building called the Homestead, "a place from which almost no one ever moved, once settled there." Edward visits Arthur and they chat, mostly about the pastbut also about their present elderly condition. Arthur is energetic, aggressive and somewhat lewd, while Edward is rather delicate and feels there are certain subjects that shouldn't be discussed.

The story begins with the arrival at Edward's door of a young woman, Mary Virginia Bellini, who is looking for the man who once lived upstairs. It seems he has gotten her pregnant. She has no money and no friends. Edward says that she can stay with him. He will sleep in the chair. But it is difficult to sleep very comfortably in a chair and soon they are sleeping together.

This turn of events completely disrupts Edward's life, which until then had consisted mostly of television, trips to the library and chats with Arthur. Furthermore, this young woman is difficult -- she disappears for days at a time, won't answer Edward's questions, borrows money, and lies. But none of that matters. Her arrival gives Edward a new sense of himself. In fact, her presence confronts him with the inadequacy of his life. And so he hopelessly courts her, and she calls him "Kind sir." He even gets himself beaten up by a cab driver because he wants her to think him firm-minded.

Then there appears an old lady, Ida Warren, who moves into the upstairs apartment and keeps Edward awake all night playing big band records of the '30s and dancing by herself with a slow shuffling step. She is kind-hearted but garrulous and lonely, and she attaches herself to Edward, which again forces him to consider his own loneliness and vinegarish nature.

Because of these women and the deteriorating health of his friend Arthur, Edward is made to question his own life, see his failings and perhaps come to a fresh understanding about the nature of love. The new situation makes him look at his past and the disappointments of his marriage -- a sickly wife and a son killed in Korea. This is not a novel in which a lot happens, nor is it very well-structured, nor do Bausch's old people seem entirely believable -- they have given up too completely, are consumed by loneliness and spend too much time nodding off in chairs and mooning about their youth. Certainly there are people over 70 who enjoy their lives.

Despite these shortcomings, "The Last Good Time" is quite a good novel and this is due primarily to the skill of Bausch's writing. The language has a painterly quality -- the characters, scenes, memories, and emotions are all precisely drawn. At one point Edward is looking out at the October evening and "the lights in the street -- the warm red window of one of the row houses down the hill, and the faint scattering of lamps through the leafy shadows of the trees in the square. A sudden gust of wind shook the branches, and leaves flew out of them like night birds." Describing Arthur, Bausch writes, "you could see he had once been a powerful man, and there was something about him, some element of outrage, that animated him, lighted his eyes and quickened the movement of his hands."

The language here makes the book. It takes a rather dreary situation and holds it up like a small jewel; it gives authority to the perceptions and poignancy to the memories. Because of that skill one wishes that Bausch would try a bigger and more ambitious book. "The Last Good Time" is moving and ultimately successful, but considering the richness of the language it would seem that Bausch could do better.