THE IDEAL, GENUINE MAN

By Don Robertson

Putnam/Philtrum Press. 276 pp. $25

Someone said (I couldn't find the source, but I believe it was Henry Miller) that if anyone ever wrote a novel telling the truth about an ordinary man, it would break your heart. As I read the opening chapters of Don Robertson's "The Ideal, Genuine Man," I thought that was what he was going to do. But then I realized that a stylist as subtle as Robertson wouldn't put the word "ideal" in the title without a reason. Reassured, I raced avidly through this beautiful book to its highly gratifying and heartwarming conclusion.

Herman (Nig) Marshall is a retired 73-year-old truck driver whose wife Edna, bald as a peeled onion from chemotherapy, is dying of cancer. There is little the old man can do for her except to make up little stories about various items he brings down from the attic. He's always had a gift for telling stories. Give him an object -- a baseball glove, a Lionel train, an old Family Circle -- and he'll make up a story, funny or sad. Either kind pleases Edna; for a brief moment, her mind is off her pain.

Herman Marshall, born in Hope, Ark., was the youngest of four brothers. Because of his thick, ugly cushiony lips, his brothers teased him unmercifully. No one else in the family had thick lips like his; no one else wanted them. He hated his brothers, especially Eldred Junior, the oldest, and surreptitiously drowned Eldred Junior's dog Elsie to get revenge.

As a young adult he was happy in Hope. He played first base for the sawmill team, and won money playing checkers at the barber shop. The Depression came; the sawmill closed; and he had just married Edna, a pretty, plump homebody without a mean bone in her chubby body. By chance, an old high school buddy got him a job switching tires for a truck firm in Houston. Six months later, he was driving a truck, his lifelong occupation.

He was drafted when the war came, killed his fair share of Germans, and enjoyed it. The enjoyment bothered him some, but when the war ended and he and Edna bought a tract house in Houston and he was back on the road again, his life became routine. After 12 years of marriage, Edna, then 32, desperately wanted a baby. A son was born, William, a beautiful boy. But the boy contracted meningitis at 10, and for the next seven years, as his spine bent, William cursed them every day for bringing him into this world and causing him such agony. When William's heart exploded with pain at 17, Edna said, "It's a judgment."

When Herman Marshall can get a neighbor lady to sit with Edna for an afternoon, he drives to Harry Munger's Top of the World bar in nearby peckerwood Pasadena. There he sucks on Shiner with the gentle rummies, old men like himself. They tell lies, brag about their sexual prowess, past and present, and he enjoys this company, even though he realizes that they are all waiting for the end. The bar is named for James Cagney's famous remark in the old movie "White Heat." "Top of the world, Ma!" Cagney says, and then he blows himself up. This was Harry Munger's favorite movie, and it is subtle foreshadowing on Robertson's part.

Then, as death sneaks in for real, Edna tells her husband the truth about William. When Eldred Junior was down on his luck, and they took him in for a spell, Edna persuaded him to impregnate her. William was still "blood," but he was Eldred Junior's son, not Herman Marshall's.

Herman loves Edna and forgives her, but he can't help thinking he has been dealt a bad hand. And after Edna dies, he and his nephew Eugene, his only blood kin left, get drunk and talk about their lives. Eugene, 50 now, is a fat and somewhat pretentious professor of English, specializing in the modern novel. He tries to cheer up his uncle, but his life is equally a mess. After Herman Marshall makes a jackass out of himself at the funeral, he decides to even things out, to make up for his beloved William, and the painful death of Edna, who never hurt a fly in her entire life. And he does, in a breathtaking finish. What a joy it is to see this incontinent old man, with clacking false teeth, beat an unfair system -- even if it is a fiction.

Don Robertson writes with a sweeping narrative drive that keeps your eyes glued to the pages. With a few lines and a scrap of dialogue, he can create a vivid characterization. "The Ideal, Genuine Man" is a book to treasure, a book to be read again, especially as one gets older. And, in all probability, it will send you back to Robertson's earlier novels.

There's a forenote by Stephen King, the publisher of Philtrum Press. As Anthony Burgess reminds us, a preface is like the tail of a lizard, and as easily discarded. I suggest that readers save the forenote for last, and read it as an afternote instead. If they do, they will appreciate what King has to say about Robertson even more.

The reviewer is the author of the Hoke Moseley detective series, "Miami Blues," "New Hope for the Dead," "Sideswipe" and the forthcoming "The Way We Die Now."