PAUPER, BRAWLER AND SLANDERER By Amos Tutuola Faber and Faber. 156 pp. $15.95; $6.95 paper

SEARCH SWEET COUNTRY By B. Kojo Laing Morrow/Beech Tree. 308 pp. $18.95

In 1952 when the Nigerian storyteller Amos Tutuola published "The Palm-Wine Drinkard," what struck most people was his "quaint" and "charming" use of pidgin English, which some readers were convinced was the mark of a primitive mind. As for the palm-wine, others just couldn't get over the remarkable idea that such an intoxicating brew (indigenous to West Africa only) could flow so freely from the trees in one's back yard.

Writers know that readers often remember the damnedest things about their books. I've encountered students who were convinced that Amos Tutuola was so addicted to palm-wine that he never wrote another word. Others thought he'd died after publishing that singular, notorious book. For the record, Amos Tutuola is very much alive. "Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer," his eighth work, will do almost as well as the others for the reader who wants to encounter Tutuola's magical kingdom.

Typically, Tutuola uses allegorical figures to demonstrate his thesis and teach a lesson. As a moralist, he works within the traditions of the oral storyteller -- in this case his own Yoruba heritage. In this newest novel, much of the conflict stems from the three main characters, all of whom have been cast out of the village of their patrimony, forced (one might say) into a reluctant journey toward self-awareness.

Thus there is the quest of the three characters, the fearful forest through which they travel and the dreadful (though not always evil) creatures they encounter along their way. Pauper is the most sympathetic, never able to break away from his fated misery. As he informs us:

"I was born in Laketu town. My father is the Oba {king} of that town. But my poverty and wretchedness had begun since my childhood. As a matter of fact, I am a hard-working one. But the harder I work the more my poverty and wretchedness become worse. Anything that I may lay my hands upon always come to poverty and wretchedness for me in the end!"

It doesn't help that his companions are his wife Brawler (who even "used to brawl continuously also in her sleep") and his sidekick Slanderer, a trickster who always takes advantage of his poor friend. Even the one time Pauper appears to have escaped his wretchedness, in the Town of Women, Slanderer's cunning ruins his good fortune. The author wryly comments, "a town is never so small without having a dunghill ..." One's destiny is, after all, merely that and nothing more.

The conclusion of Tutuola's exemplary tale is somewhat contrived. After learning that destiny is inescapable, Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer vanish -- unleashed as forces into the world by the Judge of Creator. Though this ending is appropriate within the dictates of the oral tradition, it is less satisfying for written narrative, less wondrous than the conclusions of Tutuola's earlier works. Yet this movement toward the center (including his use of more conventional language) is probably inevitable. Thirty-five years ago, Tutuola's voice was unaccompanied. Today there's a chorus of imitators who often sing much more loudly.

One of Tutuola's followers, B. Kojo Laing, has recently been praised for his first novel, "Search Sweet Country," which British reviewers have compared to the works of Dickens and Joyce. For the life of me, I fail to see how these comparisons can be drawn, except possibly for the use of language. The novel is chockablock with Ghanaian expressions, including a few the author has coined himself. Yet the lengthy glossary at the end of the book undercuts what at first glance may seem original.

Laing's problem is that although his characters, like Tutuola's, are on a kind of journey toward self-awareness, the incidents that might propel them beyond the ordinary are too often just plain boring. The narrative is lengthy and largely plotless. The characters often appear to be mouthpieces for the author's feelings about Ghana, circa 1975. Thus the reader repeatedly encounters statements such as the following: "It's a tragedy that eighteen years after independence, we're still going backward!"; "I can't understand this country!"; "Accra is giving me a headache."

Ayi Kwei Armah conveyed similar feelings of frustration about Ghana's sorry state of lassitude in his brilliant novel "The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born" (1968). Laing, who clearly shares many of Armah's frustrations about his homeland, appears to have opted for private obscurity and failed high jinks. In some way, I'd say that "Search Sweet Country" owes as much to Ishmael Reed as it does to the author's African contemporaries. Thus, although genuinely humorous incidents and lines ("she was a telephonist but the only person she wanted to phone was God") are often juxtaposed with the fantastic, the total mix is something less than satisfactory. Unlike Tutuola's compelling phantasmagoria, it's easy to put this novel down and even easier to forget totally about it.

The reviewer's books include "The Emergence of African Fiction" and "Arthur Dimmesdale," a novel.