WILDLIFE

By Richard Ford

Atlantic Monthly Press. 177 pp. $18.95

Joe Brinson is 16 years old, living in Montana in 1960 with his parents. "I only cared about my mother and my father then," he writes in recollection, "and in the time since then I have realized that we were not a family who ever cared about much more than that." At the moment, though, his family's internal loyalties are about to undergo a severe test: Jerry, his father, is abruptly dismissed as teaching pro at a Great Falls golf club and wanders off to fight forest fires in the nearby mountains, and Jeanette, his mother, begins a love affair with a coarse but prosperous local businessman.

For Joe, whose life up to now has been happy, these parental disaffections are disorienting steps into "the unknown." Later, watching his mother with her lover, he says: "I was only aware at the moment that things felt out of control and I did not know how to bring them back." Later: "My life had suddenly become this, which wasn't awful but wasn't the way it had been." And still later his father says: "It's sure surprising how fast the world can turn backwards, isn't it?"

Well, actually, no, it's not -- not, at least, after the point has been pounded in so many times that the reader is desperate for relief. In this his fifth work of fiction, Richard Ford is determined not to let the reader miss a single point, so he goes off on an orgy of repetition and didacticism that finally drains the life out of "Wildlife." That his intentions are good -- he means to write about how human ties can survive adversity -- is admirable but irrelevant; "Wildlife" is less a work of fiction than a collection of homiletic aphorisms.

When Richard Ford's people speak to each other, they sound as if they're quoting one of the homespun philosophers: James Whitcomb Riley or Rod McKuen or Robert Fulghum. "You're happy if the thing you naturally want makes the other person happy." "Sometimes you have to do the wrong thing just to know you're alive." "Something's always up there that can take you away." "Events can maroon you more than people can." "You can get carried away with how things were once, and not how you need to make them better."

On and on they prattle, these lonesome cowpokes of the purple sage, smoothing each other's passage through life with pearls of pop-psychological wisdom. When they aren't doing that, they're banging up against all the sky-high metaphors with which Ford has cluttered the Montana landscape, most notably those having to do with the forest fires. Like a puppy with a slipper, Ford sinks his teeth into those metaphors, shakes them all over the place and refuses to let them go.

Thus it is that Joe and his mother sit down in a restaurant and have a nice philosophical talk about the fires, the brunt of which is that "it was sometimes a good thing to be near a thing so uncontrollable and out of all scale that you felt reduced and knew your position in the world." Later Joe says -- just in case you hadn't figured it out for yourself -- that "we were waiting for my father to be there, and the fire to be controlled and for our lives to become whatever they'd be from then on." Finally -- finally! -- dad comes back from the mountaintop and allows as how "a fire's not always such a bad thing."

That's the way folks drone their way through "Wildlife," the one redeeming quality of which is its brevity. With the exception of Jeanette, there isn't a single interesting character in the batch, and she's interesting primarily because she's the one occasionally irreverent presence. Joe, ostensibly the center around which the novel revolves, is interchangeable with any other narrator of any other coming-of-age novel; his failure to respond to his mother's affair with real vehemence or outrage saps the story of any dramatic potential it might seem to possess.

"Wildlife" is written, its dust jacket informs us, with "epigrammatic brilliance." Probably that says more about the standards of measurement in contemporary American literature than it does about the novel itself; a literary community in which hardly anyone has anything to say should perhaps be forgiven for mistaking Ford's bromides for the pungency of a latter-day Wilde. The poor old ordinary reader, though, is likely to recognize them for just what they are, and go on to better things.