RITE OF SPRING

By Andrew M. Greeley

Bernard Geis/Warner.

436 pp. $18.95

To give credit where it's due, anybody who reads Andrew Greeley's fiction gets involved. If you're looking for romantic (actually, amorous -- there's a difference) adventure, Greeley's your read. You may tire quickly of his mild Irish prose and get annoyed, to the point of talking back, at his characters, but you'll make it to the end just to see how it all turns out. I know I did, muttering all the way.

That's because in "Rite of Spring," 5-foot, 8-inch Brendan Ryan's transformation from a contemplative, self-effacing tax lawyer into Rambo to save the girl he's obsessed with is not only trendy but unbelievable. Instead of cheerfully going along with the story, you find yourself forever debating whether Brendan is too sane to be so stupid, or too nutty to take seriously -- besides being awfully lucky.

Yet another cousin in the populous Ryan family saga, Brendan ("poor wee man" as his oh-so-Irish love calls him) wanders about overdosing on his psychic powers and maintaining too many allegorical pretensions through all sorts of problems, including a mean wife, an alienated daughter, various childhood friends who are falling apart, a Mafia killer, renegade Irish revolutionaries and, if you ask me, a big Irish head. (This is not prejudice but observation: Greeley's American Irish seem increasingly to live in a state of nonstop ethnic narcissism.)

Brendan tries to defuse reader gripes by co-opting them ("What a pompous ass I was"), but such moments of truth don't stop the "lust crazed Celtic berserker within me" from moving right along in the usual unabashed Greeley fashion. He has his woman, loses his woman, incidentally makes friends with his daughter, and finally guns down all the riled Irish foes who stand between him and his woman -- strong, stunning Ciara Kelley. (All Greeley's women are stunning, and strong enough to shoot baddies on their own.)

The daydream's acceptable, pinned down by Greeley's customary Chicago trivia and, more interesting, a tourist's-eye view of Ireland. Unfortunately, there are also Symbols.

The book is muscle-bound with symbols, including spring-fertility ones, complete with Stravinskyesque section titles, a ganglion of ancient Celtic heroes and heroines, a whole different set of Arthurian Round Table images, assorted demons and fairies and rather irrelevant psychic glimpses of ancient historical happenings. The meanings of all these gridlocked messages, however, amount to considerably less than the originals' -- for example, the Holy Grail as sex. (Greeley likes to argue the higher purity of primitive concepts, though he adapts quite happily to other refinements of civilization, like Uzi machine pistols and Jameson's Irish whiskey.)

It would be all too easy to dismiss "Rite of Spring" as just another Andrew Greeley extravaganza. This would be a mistake. As P.G. Wodehouse once observed, "This was not just another act of God. It was written deliberately."

The reviewer is a writer and critic living in Cumberland, Md.