LINDBERGH'S SON

By John Vernon

Viking. 279 pp. $17.95

"All this began long before I died and they cut out my brain to keep it functioning ... Now I think it's in the Smithsonian; footsteps, voices, cavernous echoes." Thus begins John Vernon's second novel, "Lindbergh's Son." If his first ("La Salle," 1986) hadn't been such a fine piece of metafiction and a fascinating study of human nature, we might not read on. But despite the hokey opening, we are soon caught up in the autobiography of this brain -- the way it shifts and assimilates facts, exchanges imagination and memory, forgets to remember, anything to justify itself, to keep on going.

Most of the events it relates are remembrances of itself embodied in Charles Cooper, but our interest lies less in Cooper than in the workings of his brain. The story begins when Cooper swings off the New York Thruway to check out his summer farmhouse. He is on his way to purchase more IBM software because he's "convinced that we're nearing the uncertain end of something in this century, maybe the end of physical reality itself, and the new world at the tunnel's exit (while computers blip and hum in the light) will be more like a radar screen ..."

When he unlocks the kitchen door he hears another door bang shut. His reaction is a calm dissertation of paranoia, a disease he knows he doesn't have because: "I've been endowed with the faculty of controlling my dreams, of accelerating their course at will and turning them in any direction I wish, without waking up. I daresay paranoid people can't do this."

When he finds an old Social Security card there bearing his number but the name "Charles Lyndhurst," he refuses to worry, because "Puzzles make me think reality has come down with an illness." Two weeks later that illness becomes terminal when his old nurse (mother?) shows up with his cousin (sister?) to tell him he is the son of Charles Lindbergh.

Although Cooper tells us he has such a clear mind he can remember his own birth, he shifts through a series of identities trying to puzzle out who he really is and how he got there. The more events from the past that Cooper (Lyndhurst? Lindbergh?) remembers, the more the plot thickens. The fact that Cooper is a hypochondriac, prone to -- well, let's not spoil the reader-narrator dynamic that pulls us through the book. Suffice it to say that what Cooper's brain tells us and what we find between the lines don't always square up.

Despite Cooper's antiheroics and sophomoric philosophizing, this is no Woody Allen movie. In fact, one of the problems with the book is that we're not sure quite how to take it. Some readers (in this age of minimalism) will balk at its outrageous risks, will find the plot premise gimmicky and its (purposely?) banal ending hard to swallow. But underneath its rather conscious attempts to be "in," to mix metafiction and fabulation, there is a real writer exploring his own fictional necessities. And the vision coming out of them is so strong and consistent that we must give him listening room and time to find a form to accommodate it.

The premise of Vernon's powerful fictional vision is naturalistic: He sees the human brain as a highly evolved, still evolving, very physical entity (images of entrails and inventions prevail) that goes out when you pull the plug. Trapped in a mortal body, hauling with it all the glory and trash of its evolution, all the technology and emotion it has devised, this human brain operates in a landscape littered with ideas and artifacts of the past. Its chief occupation is attempting to square individual life (and its inevitable death) with the flux and flow of an ever-changing, very material world.

This naturalistic base allows Vernon to straddle the comic and tragic modes. Both "La Salle" and "Lindbergh's Son" involve not just flawed but very fallible heroes who, in the face of overwhelming odds and shifting realities, are obsessed with being at the forefront of human advancement, and thus reach both a questionable triumph and an inglorious fate.

That Vernon's neonaturalism can encompass mixed literary forms is demonstrated by "La Salle's" perfect melding. "Lindbergh's Son," however, indicates that ultimately it can be accommodated only by its own especially evolved form. Vernon has a keen intuition of where the subterranean veins in human nature lie and the ability to invent his own tools to shape what he finds there. Is it too much to hope that he will now strike out on his own into the wilderness?

The reviewer is a writer living in Kyle, Tex.