CROOKED HEARTS

By Robert Boswell

Knopf. 340 pp. $17.95

Let's see if I can get this one small part of Robert Boswell's first novel straight: Eileen has married Sam Crawford, whom she refers to merely as "a buddy." She has married Sam because she is pregnant by Charley Warren. She does not love Charley; she loves his brother Tom, who has left Yuma, Ariz., to attend the university in Berkeley, Calif. It is not clear why Eileen was sleeping with Charley. Of the child of Charley, Eileen and Sam, Boswell never tells us a mumbling word.

Much later in the book, Cassie, Charley's younger sister, says, "It's like a soap opera, I guess. I hate soap operas. The actors are all sweepy when they move and they wrinkle up their heads whenever the violins come on." In "Crooked Hearts," however, there is a notable absence of violins.

I don't want to be unfair. An outline of the plot of almost any novel about a family -- including perhaps even "Anna Karenina" -- will sound like a soap opera. All the difference lies in the treatment. But here the similarity in treatment with the television soaps seems deliberate, even exaggerated. The story is banal and melodramatic; the dialogue is inane and portentous by turns; the characters are both colorless and violent and to a certain extent interchangeable. Cassie's sentence, for instance, might as easily have been spoken by her friend Marriet or by her mother Jill or by her brother Ask. Her words tell us something about the author's attitude toward his material but nothing about Cassie as a person.

Boswell has thought closely about his material, and his conclusions about the nature of family life seem to be these: That no simple system of justice, of reward and punishment, obtains; that blind chance weighs equally with motive as a cause for events; that when family members pretend to forgive one another, they are merely biding time for an opportunity to revenge themselves; that familial love is more a destructive than a cohesive force; that the whole ordinary situation is one of numbing horror.

Maybe these ideas are true, maybe not. The ideas behind a novel are so much less important than the work itself that we take them seriously only when the book is engaging, convincing, confident in total design and accurate in local detail, and emotionally comprehensible. "Crooked Hearts" must be said to have failed most of these requirements. It is generally accurate in detail, but Boswell has not made this detail expressive. Just as his characters are often interchangeable, so are his locales. Kentucky and Arizona are presented with the same flat indistinctness; the houses look different but no landscape surrounds them.

The author has some irreproachable talents -- an eye for clothing, a gift for drawing claustrophobic interior scenes, a sympathy for the dazed dilemmas of his female characters. But a certain perversity enervates his presentation. He has broken into different voices and fragmentary time scheme a story that begs for chronological development from a central point of view. To an unnecessarily confusing design he has added gratuitous violent incident. For example, one of the more likable brothers, Ask, is simply run over by a truck that comes out of nowhere and is explained with a perfunctory later sentence that seems not to convince even the characters in the novel. And the whole story is delivered in language that, while clear enough, is almost devoid of interest in itself.

I can't help feeling that Boswell is after all a good writer whose novel has been damaged by some sort of murky philosophical message that stands behind and overshadows observation and proper sympathy with an inexplicably dour sense of menace. There is something doctrinaire about his performance. It is obvious that he has the power to write a good book. In "Crooked Hearts" he has not written one, and yet I do look forward to his next effort with anticipation. Earnestness is a necessary quality for a novelist, but it is not always a successful artistic quality.

The reviewer's most recent book is "The Fred Chappell Reader.