By Paul Auster

Viking. 217 pp. $18.95

The fiction of Paul Auster is a bit difficult to categorize or define, but let's give it a shot. An intellectual of broad accomplishment -- he is a poet, a translator and an essayist -- Auster writes what must be called intellectual mysteries, novels of suspense in which narrative, though always essential and skillfully managed, ultimately is upstaged by psychological drama and the explication of theme. Beyond that he is also a fabulist, perhaps the most interesting and original our literature has had since Bernard Malamud; the fables he tells are very much of our own time.

Auster isn't a popular novelist and probably never will be, yet he isn't really a literary novelist either, though he does enjoy a high reputation in some literary circles. Even at its most brittle and distant, his fiction is grounded in contemporary American reality in ways utterly foreign to most "serious" fiction of the moment. As a case in point consider "The Music of Chance," which is probably his most accessible novel yet which makes no compromises with his established style and themes.

Toward the novel's close its protagonist, Jim Nashe, picks up a copy of William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" and, entirely at random, chances upon these words: "... until someday in very disgust he risks everything on the single blind turn of a card ..." This is precisely what Nashe does, both literally and figuratively; "The Music of Chance" is, as its title makes clear, about "the odd conjunctions of chance" that can make a life utterly new and different.

Nashe is 33 years old, a man of no small intelligence and erudition who has chosen to work as a firefighter in Boston. Then his wife takes a hike, leaving him with their 2-year-old daughter. Not long thereafter he inherits $200,000 from his long-forgotten father. He buys himself "a red two-door Saab 900 -- the first unused car he had ever owned," quits his job, deposits his daughter with his sister in Minnesota and hits the road:

"Nashe did not have any definite plan. At most, the idea was to let himself drift for a while, to travel around from place to place and see what happened. He figured he would grow tired of it after a couple of months, and at that point he would sit down and worry about what to do next. But two months passed, and he still was not ready to give up. Little by little, he had fallen in love with his new life of freedom and irresponsibility, and once that happened, there were no longer any reasons to stop."

Then, quite by chance, a reason presents itself to him. It comes in the person of Jack Pozzi, a decade Nashe's junior, a drifter who supports himself at the poker table. Nashe gives him a ride and ends up being taken for one -- not by Pozzi, for whom he gradually develops a deep trust and affection, but by a couple of middle-aged gents named Flower and Stone whom Pozzi proposes to fleece at the poker table.

They're two of the oddest ducks you'll hope to meet, a former accountant and an optometrist who shared a lottery ticket that paid off in millions. Now they've retired to a mansion in Pennsylvania's Bucks County. "They're genuine pea-brains, my friend," Pozzi tells Nashe, "a pair of born chumps," and he persuades Nashe to stake him, with what proves to be the last of his inheritance, expecting to wipe them out.

It doesn't turn out that way. Not merely does Pozzi lose the big hand, he and Nashe end up paying off their debt in what amounts to indentured servitude. They sign a contract with Flower and Stone to build an immense wall at the wage of $10 an hour, their labors to cease when the $10,000 they owe has been paid off; but their new employers are not quite as honest as they represent themselves, and into the bargain Nashe -- like Col. Nicholson in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" -- becomes consumed by the job he has undertaken.

It isn't merely a matter of an obsessive desire to complete a task, but an acknowledgment that imprisonment has granted Nashe a form of release; as he tells Pozzi, "I promised myself I'd see it through to the end. I'm not asking you to understand it, but I'm just not going to run away. I've done too much of that already, and I don't want to live like that anymore." On the road he had freedom and irresponsibility; trapped in the country he has bondage and responsibility, and with the latter a different, and deeper, freedom.

It's a sober moral that Auster draws in "The Music of Chance," and he closes the novel on a catastrophic note, yet it's hardly a bleak or dark novel. To the contrary it is witty, even jaunty -- you won't read much better writing anywhere about the lure of the open road -- and it catches the reader in a surprisingly strong spell. It's still further evidence that Auster is one of the few contemporary American novelists whose work is both original and interesting.