NEW YORK -- Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead in the work of Max Apple is entirely typical. And as he has also discovered, it can be excruciatingly painful.

For years, in his stories and novels, Apple's favored character has been Howard Johnson, the symbol of American roadside hospitality. In his latest novel, "The Propheteers" (Harper & Row), Apple casts Howard Johnson in a comic struggle with another Apple standby, Walt Disney, over their competing visions for the touristic future of Orlando, Fla.

When Apple writes, in the disclaimer to "The Propheteers," that these characters are "drawn entirely from my imagination," he isn't being coy. He doesn't know anything about either of these very real men, now deceased -- doesn't know and doesn't want to know.

But in the disclaimer to his previous book, a 1984 collection of short pieces called "Free Agents," Apple was not so straightforward: "Several of the pieces in 'Free Agents' are obviously biographical; others are not directly connected to my life. I hope this does not confuse anyone."

One of the stories in that collection, "Bridging," is a widowed father's account of becoming a girl scout assistant leader even though his daughter (who, like Apple's own daughter, is named Jessica) is more interested in watching baseball. Walter Clemons, writing in Newsweek, called it "one of the best stories anybody has ever written."

Be that as it may, it did "confuse" people.

Novelist William Kotzwinkle, in The New York Times Book Review, took "Bridging" to be one of the "obviously biographical" portions of the book ("his wife has died, young, tragically ... his daughter Jessica only wants to hang around with him and go to baseball games").

In his review, Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post's book critic, wrote of "the awareness that gradually dawns on the reader of Apple's recent and terrible personal loss: the death of his wife after a long and debilitating disease."

In "Bridging" the narrator's wife is named Vicki. "Probably now I could call her Debby," Apple says, referring to the woman he married in 1970. But the name is not the point. He knows that "Bridging" is just a story. "It is fiction. Jessica's not a baseball fan. I was not a girl scout assistant. I'm not confused about that. None of these things happened."

None of them, that is, but the essential tragedy behind the story. As the reviewers noted, its power lies in the feelings of loss Apple was able to capture. Apple acknowledges the problem. "The confusion is my fault," he says. "I was confused myself about whether my wife was dead or alive."

Debby's parents, for their part, are not. After "Free Agents" was published and reviewed, her mother contacted review publications to denounce what she saw as their complicity in a falsehood. Debby had fallen victim to a particularly debilitating form of multiple sclerosis. But her mother wanted to make it absolutely clear -- no matter how Max Apple chose to write about his family tragedy -- that her daughter is alive.

'Why Not Use Grand Americans?' Appropriating reality is a novelist's right no less than his bread and butter. Traditional fiction earns a reader's belief by its suggestion of plausible characters behaving credibly in the midst of invented circumstances. Such an imagined world depends upon an author's canny use of an observed one -- broken down and reassembled, to be sure, in an original fashion.

In most novels, what the writer borrows from his or her own experience is fragmentary, its genesis less important than the creative uses to which it is put. Speculation about the "autobiographical" nature of a novel may be of interest to those who know the author, but a reader may appreciate the story without the privilege of such clues.

This may be said especially of many first novels, today's and yesterday's. Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel" comes to mind, as does F. Scott Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise." Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" was palpably autobiographical -- a point made obvious by the defamation and invasion-of-privacy suit recently brought by a woman who had little trouble recognizing her younger self as a character in the book.

But these are not quite romans a` clef (literally, novels with a key), which trade on the reader's recognition of well-known personalities behind a playful shroud of phony names and scrambled situations.

Aldous Huxley made no pretense about his protagonists in "Point Counter Point," Frieda and D.H. Lawrence; Willa Cather changed the name of Lamy to Latour in "Death Comes for the Archbishop." Most everyone who read Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" knew that Willie Stark was really Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana.

The roman a` clef lately has been embraced by clumsier writers who find it easy, and titillating, to populate their pages with vaguely familiar celebrities. The real roman a` clef, too, may have been eclipsed by a more aggressive form of fictional expropriation -- Max Apple's kind -- in which actual persons, famous ones, are conscripted into literary service, without disguise: "documentary fiction," as it is sometimes called.

The technique is not exactly new -- Napoleon, for example, appeared as a major character in "War and Peace," even though Tolstoy made him his own -- but since the 1960s especially, novelists attracted by journalism's muscle and history's power have pushed the license to extraordinary limits.

The doors were thrown open in earnest by E.L. Doctorow, whose 1975 novel "Ragtime" fearlessly cast J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini and Henry Ford, among others, in situations and conversations largely of Doctorow's own invention. In 1978, Robert Coover gave Richard Nixon and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg roles and identities in a surreal novel about the Rosenbergs' espionage trial and execution, "The Public Burning." Fresh exercises appear every season; in this one, Gore Vidal's "Empire" features William Randolph Hearst and Theodore Roosevelt doing and saying things they never did or said.

Except that it operates in almost total ignorance of the real-life stories of Howard Johnson and Walt Disney -- an important distinction -- "The Propheteers" falls into the documentary fiction category. As Apple puts it, sitting in the apartment he sublet for his sabbatical away from Houston, "America is my subject in this book, and why not use grand Americans?"

Max Apple, for his part, is a tiny man. Now 45, he stands 5 feet 4, but his height is less remarkable than his delicate proportions, his fragile bearing, his reedy voice. On a beefier face, the white curls would suggest Santa Claus; across these wizened features, on this elfin body, they evoke Santa's helper, a maker of toys.

For "The Propheteers," as for his first published story, "The Oranging of America" -- also about Howard Johnson -- Apple read no books about his subject. "I knew there had been a Howard Johnson," he says. "I didn't know there was a Howard Johnson Jr., who was running the company." Is he certain the original Howard Johnson is dead? "I assume. I don't know. I've never checked on that."

Yet Apple sometimes is presumed to be an expert on the HoJo empire. When a financial reporter called him for comment on a corporate plan to change Howard Johnson's restaurants, Apple says, "I was stunned, because I have no connection to any of this," and looses a long giggle.

Apple has grown equally fond of Walt Disney. He had his heart set on calling his new novel "The Disneyad," but acceded to "The Propheteers" when the lawyers at Harper & Row enforced their misgivings about commandeering the Disney name.

The author protects his Disney from the encroachments of fact, and there have been close calls. When Esquire magazine asked him to write an article about Disneyland in 1983, he went to Anaheim but spent the whole time in his hotel. "I didn't see anything that was there," he says. "I wasn't interested. I wrote about the relation of Walt Disney and Kafka, about smallness. I got no complaints from Esquire."

Apple's liberties with the sad facts of his own life may have caused him considerable grief, but his fantastic stories and books about Howard Johnson and Walt Disney have drawn no complaints from their corporate namesakes. His work is simply too "insignificant" to attract their notice, he says. "Believe me, I am no threat to the Disney empire, or whatever's left of Howard Johnson."

'Suddenly She Just Wasn't Herself' Max Apple learned how to tell stories at the knee of his grandmother, a Lithuanian immigrant who lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., for 60 years and never learned to speak English.

"The first novel I wrote -- I have an unpublished novel -- takes place in my grandma's town in Lithuania."

Where he's never been? "Of course not," he replies with a laugh.

"I knew I was going to be a writer when I listened to my grandma tell those stories," he says. "So I got a PhD in English literature. That was a kind of cover."

Max and Debby, who both grew up in Grand Rapids but never crossed paths there, met in 1968 in Ann Arbor, where Max was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Debby Berman was 19, working toward a degree in English. Max was 26. They were married in 1970, the summer she graduated.

Apple spent a year teaching at Reed College in Oregon and a summer on fellowship at Oxford University in England. Then, on the strength of his PhD and his unpublished novel -- on the strength, that is, of very little -- Apple was hired to teach writing at Rice University. He has made his home in Houston ever since.

First Jessica and then Sam were born. He and Debby had a happy life, Apple says, and a close marriage, surrounded by children and an extended family that gathered around them in Texas: Max's grandfather (who lived to be 102), Debby's sisters. Debby was an avid photographer and a versatile athlete. Max published his first story, "The Oranging of America," in Theodore Solotaroff's New American Review, and a book of stories of the same name followed in 1976.

Then, on a visit to Greensboro, N.C., in the late 1970s, Max and Debby went to a movie. All of a sudden, Debby began to see double. They went to see doctors, who advised her to wear an eye patch. No one mentioned multiple sclerosis.

"It turns out everybody knows," Apple says. "But no one wants to make that diagnosis, because in many cases it doesn't recur, and that's what everybody hopes."

The Apples had no reason to believe otherwise until the dizzy spells came a year and a half later. "It was a dizziness of such intensity that literally, if you put your hand on the bed, she couldn't stand it," Apple says. "Sam was 3 years old, and used to jumping on the bed, being very active, and I would have to pull Sam off."

As Apple begins to tell the story, his eyes lose their animation, and his voice its resonance.

"It happened so rapidly. I was just filled with rage ... It was unremitting and awful."

After a series of tests in the ensuing months, Debby was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis. "There are lesions in the nervous system," Apple explains. "It's called multiple because it's never in just one spot. It's totally unknown in origin."

For the year and a half that followed, as her condition deteriorated, Debby lived at home with Max, Jessica, Sam and a stream of nurses and baby sitters. "I was with her every moment," Apple recalls. "I was literally crazy at that time. I could think of nothing else ... It just kept getting worse. She knew ..."

In a whisper, he says, "There are some things I just can't tell you." For a long time, he gnaws at his knuckle. Then he swallows and goes on.

"Almost as suddenly as these other things had started, she just wasn't herself. She just wasn't there. She wouldn't get out of bed. She lost her ... her understanding."

Debby was admitted to Houston's Methodist Hospital in August 1980. She could still talk a little bit, Apple recalls -- "a sentence here and there, yes and no, uh-huh and unh-unh," but communication was very hard.

Her condition, as Max describes it, would reflect an advanced and rare form of multiple sclerosis. The disease's more common manifestation is a progressive, and often quite gradual, deterioration in motor and sensory skills. According to Jack P. Antel, neurologist in chief at the Montreal Neurological Institute, "less than 10 percent of patients, perhaps significantly less," go on to suffer the more debilitating mental and intellectual impairment.

During the fall months of 1980, Max spent most of his waking hours at the hospital, just a few blocks from their house, leaving Sam and Jessica at home in the care of friends and baby sitters.

"My daughter was terrifically depressed, my son was angry and having tantrums all the time. They'd lost their mother and, it hurts me to say, they'd lost me too."

Apple recalls one evening, when he was home from the hospital for a quick supper before returning to Debby's bedside: "Sam said to me, 'You never play with me.' Maybe he said it to me lots of times. But I heard it one night. And after dinner I sat down in the hallway and rolled those little cars, those little steel cars, back and forth with him for two hours. I didn't go back to the hospital that night. It was the first time I broke that rigid schedule."

'I Didn't Make That Up' Max Apple describes his mother-in-law, Faye Berman, as his "ally" in the early months of Debby's illness. But the choice he faced when it came time to arrange his wife's posthospital care drove a bitter wedge between them.

Apple began to make arrangements for his wife to enter the Jewish Home for the Aged a few blocks from their house in Houston. "It was a melancholy decision, believe me, to have my wife, who was 29 or 30 at that time, put in an old-age home," he says.

"But I didn't know how to bring her back into my house and live with her ... My mother-in-law said she would pay for everything, full-time nursing, and she meant it, and she would have. But I saw that I would go crazy ... I didn't know how to go and pretend everything was all right." Apple arranged psychotherapy for his children, and for himself.

Faye Berman, by Max Apple's account, refused to accept the irreversibility of Debby's condition, arguing that her best hope for recovery was to remain near her children, under her family's care. His mother-in-law, he says, vehemently opposed moving Debby to the Jewish Home for the Aged. With the matter unresolved, Apple agreed to let the Bermans take Debby back to Michigan for a few weeks when she left Methodist Hospital.

(Reached by telephone in Grand Rapids, Faye Berman briefly expresses dismay that her former son-in-law is discussing Debby's illness for publication, speculating that he is trying to gain sympathy to sell his book. Later, Debby's sister Naomi calls to say her mother has asked her to speak for the family, but says first she must consult her family's lawyers and an independent film production company in California interested in basing a television docudrama about multiple sclerosis on Debby's illness. In subsequent calls, both Faye and Naomi Berman say the family will have no further comment.)

Returning from Michigan the week after Christmas, 1980, the Bermans moved into the Apple household with Debby. In the weeks after her hospital discharge, Max Apple had taken steps toward becoming his wife's legal guardian -- a condition of his admitting her to the Jewish Home for the Aged. A day or two after the Bermans' return, however, Apple answered his front door and "out of the blue," he says, was served with divorce papers -- a countermove, he surmises now, to block him from becoming Debby's guardian (under Texas law, if there's an adversarial procedure between them, neither spouse can become the guardian of the other).

"I had a choice," he says. "I could have chosen to fight Faye." His lawyer told him he would have won the case. "But what would I have won? In my mind the fight was ... not where Debby was going to be, but about who was going to have the children. I saw the divorce had already happened -- in nature."

At the conclusion of the uncontested divorce proceeding, the court declared that Debby "lacks sufficient mental capacity to manage and control the properties and funds awarded under this decree {or} to understand the nature of documents which she would have to execute to effect the transfers of properties set forth in this decree." The judge awarded custody of the Apple children to their father, spelling out a schedule of visitation rights for Debby and for the Bermans.

Still, the conflict continued. By Apple's account, Sam and Jessica were confused by their mother's condition and their grandmother's actions were exacerbating their confusion. It emerged in Sam's psychotherapy, Apple says, that "he thought other people could read Debby's mind, but he couldn't, because my mother-in-law would say, 'Mom wants you to do this,' and 'Mom said this about you.' You know, a 5-year-old kid, he knows Mom doesn't say this, so he thought that he was supposed to mind-read."

A year after the divorce decree was signed, Max Apple went back to court to curtail the Bermans' visitation rights. In his motion, he alleged numerous actions harmful to the children, among them a threat to "physically disfigure" Jessica's therapist and messages left on Max Apple's answering machine purporting to be from Debby. (The Bermans' lawyer at the time does not recall these charges being answered in court, but says they weren't an important factor in the decision to be made.) A subsequent court order barred the Bermans from the children's visits with their mother, and required visits with their maternal grandparents to be conducted in the presence of a third party. Shortly thereafter, the Bermans took their invalid daughter back to Grand Rapids, where she lives today.

At about this time -- the spring of 1984 -- the controversy over "Bridging" erupted. Soon after "Free Agents," the book that contained the story, was published, Apple's former mother-in-law placed angry telephone calls to The Washington Post and lawyers representing the Bermans wrote letters to People magazine; reviews in both publications had mentioned the death of the author's wife.

(Both People and The Post reviewed "The Propheteers" when it was published this spring, but The Post's Yardley says he felt "burned" by the experience of taking "Bridging" as a factual account -- "I do not think that I misread the book," he says -- and declined to review it himself in this newspaper.)

The following two years were calmer for both families. Encouraged by the increased civility of his relationship with Faye Berman, and confident of the resilience of his growing children, Apple began, on occasion, to let Jessica and Sam see their mother and grandparents without a third party present.

"The thing is, my children do love their mom. And they know that she's not there. Like Sam said, when he went there, the only thing that was hard for him was when Faye would say, 'Go play with your mom.' He said, 'How do I do that?' ... My children are heartbroken, as anyone would be. We've had to, all of us, accept it as death."

Does he wish Debby would die?

"The kids and I talk about this," he says. "They can say more easily than I can that they wish she would die."

He suddenly recalls a line in "Bridging," the story he insists is fiction, in which "Jessica tells people her mother fell off the Empire State Building.

"I didn't make that up," he says. "That's right from Jessica's mouth."

'A Closure, a Kaddish' Harper & Row published "The Propheteers" in March with a big advertising budget and high hopes, experimenting with a soft-cover first edition of the novel. The reviews were plentiful and largely enthusiastic, the sales satisfying but not earthshaking.

Sam and Jessica are in school now in New York; Max is teaching and writing (including a new male-viewpoint column in New York Woman magazine). The distance from Houston and the stimulus of Manhattan evidently are a tonic. The three of them like it so much they've decided to extend their stay through next summer.

The children visit Debby in Grand Rapids, and Apple says they have come to terms with their mother's condition. But he adds it is still too early to expect "a closure, a kaddish," to their family tragedy.

"I still don't know what happened to Debby. It's in the hazy area between the brain and the mind," he says, repeating an enigmatic phrase he remembers hearing years ago. "I can say that, but I don't know what it means. What happened to the woman who was my wife?"

When he does write the most difficult story of his life, he will be trying to answer that question. He doesn't know when he will be able to face the task -- not soon -- but he cannot imagine the story will be anything but fiction.