By Paula Fox

North Point Press. 225 pp. $18.95

Helen Bynum, the narrator of Paula Fox's latest novel, is a young innocent who finds herself, for various reasons, leaving her home in Poughkeepsie to take up residence in the French Quarter of New Orleans. One of those reasons is a mother whose "importunate and bullying optimism and the hardened heart which was its consequence" have become a torment to her. Another is the announcement of the death of her father, a man she no longer knows but once loved before he left home for good 13 years before. Time and love and hardened hearts inform this graceful, intelligent novel, almost inevitably so since it is the story of a romantic young woman coming of age in the Vieux Carre in the early years of World War II.

Helen's ostensible mission in New Orleans is to find her Aunt Lulu and persuade her to spend some time in New York with her mother, an impossible proposition, for both women are as intolerant as cats. "Tolerance," Helen tells us, "is easy enough if you exclude from it everyone you despise." But from the beginning Helen knows that her real mission lies elsewhere, into her own mysterious future, in a place where her "concentrated sentient self was really lodged, the one that ceaselessly spoke -- perhaps in dreams, too -- and judged and directed {her} attention to this or that -- the self that thought it thought."

Like a good girl, though -- and Helen really is good-hearted -- she makes the pilgrimage to her Aunt Lulu's apartment. There she meets Lulu, or at least looks at her, for her aunt is collapsed in an alcoholic swoon; there too she meets Len, a reserved, mysterious young man who takes care of Lulu and is biding his time till he's drafted. Although it is apparent that Helen falls in love with Len at first sight, Fox manages to avoid sentimentality by surrounding the scene with descriptions of the debauched, bizarrely sexual state of Aunt Lulu and her room. And that is at the heart of Fox's accomplishment in this novel about difficult romance: the eschewal of sentimentality and illusion in favor of real sentiment. As Claude, one of her characters, asks, "How can sympathy be anything but cheap sentiment if you don't know the dark side?"

From that meeting in Aunt Lulu's room on, characters enter the novel at a furious pace. In fact, plot figures less highly in the structure of the book than does an accumulating knowledge of character. After all, this is Helen's story, the story of that short period in her life when she was introduced to, and entered, the mysterious complexities of adulthood. She boards in the house of Gerald Boyd and Catherine Bruce, a sickly poet and his ethereal, fiercely protective lover. Their home is a sort of community property in the Quarter: Artists, dilettantes, con men and radicals congregate there regularly, almost as though the place were a cultural stage, set exclusively for Helen's introduction into the possibilities and pitfalls of grown-up life.

There is Gerald himself, a sensitive man brutalized by his experiences among the Cajuns, about whom he'd written with love and grief, a man whose kindly, dignified suffering attracts fellow sufferers like a sunset. There is Aunt Lulu, a bloated, gross woman subject to fits of rage and crafty charm and, at times, incredibly shrewd mean-spiritedness. Those characters who frequent the gatherings at the home of Gerald and Catherine are a motley group: Norman Lidner, a paranoid, mediocre painter and radical whose trouble is "he never met a landscape, or a worker, he couldn't paint"; his wife, Marlene, whose loquacious and tedious vanity has the power to stretch time; Sam Bridge, a rich philanderer with an appalling habit of treating women (or anyone at all) as commodities; Nina, a young woman whose secretive life will resonate in Helen's own far into the future; and then there is Claude.

Claude de la Fontaine is one of Fox's most intriguing characters, perhaps because his complexity is shrouded in the unknown, perhaps even the unknowable. He serves as a sort of living metaphor for what Helen calls "the implacable forces of time and loss." And, indeed, his life is a mixture of the longing and sadness the young Helen cannot quite name or understand at this stage of her life. A homosexual from an old New Orleans family, he is literally at risk of his life because of love. For Claude, love has become a matter of embracing the possibility of doom in hopes of its opposite, of drinking a "libation to the god of nightmares." The nobility of Claude's fortitude is, in the end, a catalyst that will ultimately serve as a salvation of Helen's own love.

"The God of Nightmares" is a disturbing yet optimistic investigation into the geometries of love and time. Paula Fox has a great talent for creating the characters of noble, even transcendent men and women, as well as their shadowy counterparts, and her rendering of both is absolutely believable in this novel. She shows that it is in fact "possible to have courage, or at least be stoical, in the face of life's afflictions without at the same time betraying reality." Well, so it is.

The reviewer teaches at Syracuse University and is the author of "Wind: Stories."