THE FORTUNE TELLER

By Marsha Norman

Random House. 387 pp. $18.95

Four years ago Marsha Norman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her play "'night, Mother." Now, with good intentions but considerably less successful results, she has turned her hand to fiction. A successful playwright does not necessarily a successful novelist make.

"The Fortune Teller" means to be a novel on the grand scale -- set in a small city and involving a relatively small cast of principal characters, but dealing with all the big, cosmic themes. The problem, though, is that Norman rarely manages to raise it much above the level of soap opera -- which makes the big themes seem considerably more trivial than they really are -- and fails to create any characters who engage much more than perfunctory interest or sympathy.

The fortuneteller of the title is Fay Morgan, a woman of supernatural powers: "Fay had always known ... what was going to happen. Where things were. Who was coming into who else's life and when. And why." Though these powers would seem sufficient to make her wealthy and renowned, in fact she lives modestly, selling her "powers of location" to the police, to widows whose dogs are lost and to "ordinary people, brokers and teachers, lovers and clerks, who would pay fifty dollars an hour for Fay to read the Tarot cards, or their palms, or the looks on their faces and tell them where they were."

The main people in Fay's life are her 19-year-old daughter Lizzie and her lover Arnie Campbell. She adores Lizzie, to the extent that she threatens to smother her daughter in a wild excess of motherly love and consternation; when a handsome young man shows up and begins to court Lizzie, Fay is immediately convinced that he is "the Devil," and her powers of prediction lead her to believe that he will do her daughter wrong. As for Arnie, he is a good, solid man, a detective on the local police force who has begun to tire of crime and corruption; he wants Fay to move away with him and settle down in Wyoming.

But before Fay can reach a decision on Arnie's offer, their combined powers of detection are put to a difficult test when 27 children suddenly disappear from the fairgrounds. As the psychic and the police dig into the case, they learn that the children have been abducted by antiabortion zealots who claim that their hostages will not be released until their parents "have collected forty thousand signatures and addresses on a petition demanding that abortion once again be outlawed in the United States."

There then ensues what clearly is intended to be a tense struggle between the kidnappers and their pursuers, but it never achieves either the drama or the poignancy that Norman obviously is reaching for. Most of her efforts are centered on Beth, the young daughter of Fay's close friend Gail, but since Beth exists as little more than an abstraction it is difficult to work up any more concern for her than for any of the other missing kids; nor is it easy to work up much sympathy for Gail, who really seems more interested in herself -- and her budding romance with the city's handsome young mayor -- than in her daughter.

"The Fortune Teller" is, in fact, a novel that insists on the reader's sympathies yet does almost nothing to earn them. We are told that Gail is a good person and that Beth is a lovely child, just as we are told that Lizzie is a butterfly longing to escape its cocoon and that Fay is a captive of her own fearful imagination; but little that these people do or say arouses our sympathies, because Norman never brings any of them to life.

Perhaps the problem is that she is accustomed, as a playwright, to using actors and stage sets to flesh out her words; she relies heavily on dialogue in "The Fortune Teller" and gives descriptive matter relatively short shrift. A more likely explanation, though, is that she is less interested in the people she creates than in the points of view she intends them to represent. She wants to explore the arguments for and against abortion, and to examine the relationship between past, present and future; but she has not succeeded in putting real human flesh on these or any of her other themes.

Of Norman's sincerity there can be no question, but sincerity simply is not enough. "The Fortune Teller" is an awkward, overlong novel that offers little to reward the immense patience it demands of the reader. Marsha Norman has gifts, but whether they include those of the novelist remains to be seen.