With dead-even flatness:

"Sometimes writing is used to hide things, sometimes it's used to expose things. It's always coded. By nature it's covert." And then, appending, his voice still very quiet, his intense dark eyes warning a reporter, John Edgar Wideman says, "If your goal is to unravel, then you will be very disappointed, and the unraveling will ... stop."

The breath of air between "will" and "stop" merely serves to make the thought (threat?) a little more pointed.

This hotel room suddenly seems a whole lot smaller and hotter.

It's called "Philadelphia Fire," and it's his 10th book, 199 pages of conflagration, a lyric and confusing and riveting and ragged work of fiction that does and does not concern the 1985 MOVE disaster, in which a bomb from a state police helicopter was dropped on a back-to-nature cult on Osage Avenue in West Philly, ending in 11 deaths and the destruction of 60-odd row houses: a whole inner-city neighborhood wiped out with one small efficient plastic explosive.

Yes, it's a book about urban rottage and the insanity of MOVE and the way two races in America at the end of the 20th century seem bent on destroying each other. But it's about many other things, too, not least stricken fathers and lost sons living out their grief and guilt and turmoil nowhere near Osage Avenue in West Philly.

You could add a lost brother to the equation as well. Because that is the double helix of an author's real-life pain, some of which John Edgar Wideman has been brave enough and brassy enough to include in this book, and yet loathes having you ask about in person: the cold fact that both a sibling and a son are doing life in separate penitentiaries for murder.

The nightmare subtext of a man's life and work. His constant, unwanted "it."

But what John Wideman seems to keep suggesting, by word and body language, is that any mention of it at all is not only inappropriate but rather crude.

In the mid-'70s Robby Wideman, John Wideman's little brother, the one who didn't get free of the lower-class Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood, was convicted of armed robbery and felony murder. And then, almost exactly a decade later, came John Wideman's own son, an athletically gifted 16-year-old man-child named Jacob who, on an unfathomable August night in 1986, rose from his sleep in an Arizona motel, wrapped his hand around the souvenir "survival" knife he'd purchased in Yellowstone (it had a nifty built-in compass and a six-inch serrated blade he'd spent some time honing), stepped across the darkened space to the bed opposite his own, and proceeded to plunge it into the frail breast of a sleeping fellow cross-country camper named Eric Kane.

"We are all trapped in the terrible jaws of something shaking the life out of us," Wideman writes in the opening pages of "Philadelphia Fire."

And later: "It is my son and he speaks softly from far away. I can barely hear him... . I've learned the hard way that I've always known next to nothing about him. Except I do know the danger of the place where he's incarcerated, the depth of the trouble he's in."

It seems possible to read double meanings and triple meanings into almost every sentence of this brilliant, burning, rageful novel. It's a folding-in-on-itself kind of performance, a mirror within a mirror, and reviewers across the country don't quite seem to know what to make of it. For every one who pans it comes the next who loves it. What it really seems is a book of sections, set pieces, jazz riffs, meditations, unconnected soliloquies. In a way it's almost as if an author had decided that a disconnectedness and unevenness and deliberate mad jumpiness would ripely serve his purpose: to portray a culture strangulating on its racism, a racism present at the creation.

Wideman's own answer to any questions about coherence is simply, "Powerful doesn't necessarily mean well-knit." He seems bored with such questions. Take it on its own terms.

All right. Listen to this passage, which comes almost exactly in the middle, right after the author has startlingly -- almost schizophrenically -- inserted himself, by name, as a character into the narrative:

"Will I ever try to write my son's story? Not dealing with it may be causing the forgetfulness I'm experiencing. ... I do feel my narrative faculty weakening. A continuous, underlying distraction so that if I look away from what I'm doing, I lose my place. What I'm doing or saying or intending engages me only on a superficial level. ... I keep recalling how Jonathan Swift paused and stared at a gigantic tree whose upper branches had been blasted by lightning. He said to his companions, I'll go like that one. At the top first."

At the top first. But at the top today everything seems so pacific, so ordered. If the prose is angry and conflagrant, the man himself seems unperturbed as a summer lake in Maine -- which is where Wideman and his family have long spent summers. It's as though there were no kid brother named Robby, now 39, sitting both in a brother's head and in his cell in western Pennsylvania; as if there were no second son named Jake, now 20, sitting both in a father's head and in his cell in southern Arizona.

If you didn't know, you'd never guess, not in a thousand tries. This is the destined ghetto kid who somehow transformed himself into Mr. Phi Beta Kappa at Penn, class of '63. Mr. Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Mr. PEN/Faulkner fiction winner at a ripe old 42. That's not half the re'sume'.

On Page 8 of "Fire": "His identification with the boy persists like a discredited rumor."

But of course that's fiction, a sentence plucked from a book, and this is a Washington hotel room. It's a mistake to confuse art with life. This is the start of a national book tour, and John Edgar Wideman is dutifully chatting up the media. He's got on a silky shirt with an open collar, a pair of freshly laundered blue jeans, black wingtips with grooved soles.

You keep wondering how he can even function in this unspoken, surreal, Kafka walking dream, let alone get the garbage out on Tuesdays and compose beautiful sentences. Let alone convey an impression nothing is the matter.

A lanky leg is hitching itself up onto one of the hotel sofa's pillows. However, the hitching upward has caused a quarter-inch of flesh to show between the top of the black nylon sock and the cuff of the jeans. John Wideman, nothing if not cool at the top, reaches down, one water-smooth easy motion, and tugs at the pant. A quarter-inch of flesh is exposed no more.

And he says, "No. No, I won't discuss it with you. The first reason is I don't have Jake's permission. The second reason is that it's irrelevant. There's nothing I can tell you about my son that's relevant to him that's not already in the book. I used what I used. It means what it means inside the book. I'm not offering up my life as material to explain anything to anyone. I'll put it this way. It's a formulation. My life is a closed book. My fiction is an open book. They may seem like the same book -- but I know the difference."

And a few minutes later: "I don't care whether or not it's the fashion, in popular and literary culture, to splice the author's life with his fiction. I'm not going to participate in a trivialization of what I feel is an attempt at art. I refuse to play the game of biographical reconstruction. It's a pernicious activity. Of course I've had some very traumatic and devastating things happen to me. That's clear. It's on the record. For my own reasons I have transposed these things into some kind of -- I hope -- art... . This terrible need to try and decode is part of the reason why this society is going to hell in a bucket."

But you've been willing to put part of your own story into a book -- doesn't that make it fair game?

He considers this. His right arm has hinged itself at the back of his balding head. An index finger, smooth and slender, is idly tracing the seam on the back of the sofa. "Well, it's fair game. But fair game doesn't mean the tiger comes and puts his head in the net. That's not fair game. That's fish in a barrel."

Actually, the words "fair game" seem almost obscene in such a context.

Later, when you try to bring it up again, there is a moment of hardball from an old jock: "Really, snuff movies are the same linear extension of personality profiles, aren't they? It's the same forces at work. You kill somebody because it's exhilarating. You want to see a {Sam} Peckinpah explosion of blood. That's what personality profiles like to do. It's a failure of the imagination, really. You can't deal with what art is trying to do. It's like Geraldo who's talking to somebody who's been gang-raped 16 times, and he leans in close and says, 'Tell me, how do you feel?' "

And yet ... a book haunting a reader with sentences like these:

"But what is the word for a parent who's lost a child? I have no word, no place to begin."

Or again: "I am the son of my father. I am the father of my son. Son's father. Father's son. An interchangeability that is also dependence: The loss of one is loss of both."

This is a little of what an interview with John Edgar Wideman feels like. It feels as if a man had beckoned you into his house, but then once you're inside comes up to the white of your eyeball and asks just what the hell you think you're doing there.

Only it's usually more coded than that.

Athlete and Artist

He is sad almost all the time and wonders if it shows in his face. In the course of a day his face is required to take on many different expressions, but no matter what emotion his features mime, the sadness is there, somewhere, because he feels it, burning like a rash, always ... Half his face obliged to go on about the business of living, half as if asleep, dreaming over and over again the nightmare of his son's pain.

-- from "Philadelphia Fire"

John Edgar Wideman, who is 49 now, moves with the grace of a banged-up pro, somebody who once played the game awfully well and doesn't have trouble remembering. The game was basketball, Big Five basketball, in the Palestra in Philly more than 25 years ago. He made All-Ivy, he made Big Five Basketball Hall of Fame. He was among the last of the great 6-foot-2 forwards, before forwards became 7-footers -- a leaper who could mix it up underneath and take rebounds off players three and four inches bigger than he was.

It's pleasurable just watching this once-and-ever B-ball jock fold himself onto a couch or stroke a telephone up to his ear. Wideman's voice has these same mellifluent, loose-jointed qualities. It's almost as if he were coming to you from the graveyard shift at an FM outlet in LaLa Land.

At the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he is a tenured professor of English and teaches creative writing (he used to teach at the University of Wyoming), Wideman regularly goes out to the city's asphalt playgrounds in search of games. Once a shark, always a shark.

He made co-captain at the University of Pennsylvania his junior year. In his senior year, Look magazine came to Ben Franklin's campus and followed the star to classes with cameras. He'd picked up a Rhodes Scholarship by then. The piece was called "The Astonishing John Wideman."

He played against Bill Bradley twice in college -- guarded him, in fact. Bill Bradley played for the Princeton Tigers and made All-American and later the NBA. (Later still, he would make senator from New Jersey.) He and Bradley wound up at Oxford together and played some mean pickup ball.

"My ambition was to play basketball long enough so I could play with my kids," he says. "That happened. I used to carry them to the gym, now they carry me." Wideman has three children: Danny, a senior at Brown; Jake; and Jamilia, who's 14.

"Hey, you'll enjoy my upcoming Michael Jordan piece in Esquire," he says, then immediately corrects himself because that sounds too immodest: "I mean, I think you might enjoy it." Old classmates from Penn recall precisely this quality: the becoming modesty of a guy who had it terribly but didn't choose to put it in your face.

"I've kind of trained myself to be low-key," Wideman once told a Washington interviewer. "Sometimes the crowd screams, sometimes the crowd doesn't scream." The "soft-cover Shakespeare" made that remark upon arriving in town to pick up his PEN/Faulkner award. He'd been dubbed the soft-cover Shakespeare because of his stipulation that his previous two works of fiction be published in original paperback: He wanted them affordable to poor blacks.

The PEN/Faulkner award was in the spring of 1984. A couple months later, Wideman came out with his first nonfiction book. It was about Robby, and it carried the title, "Brothers and Keepers." The burden of question on every page seemed to be: How is it I could have turned out me, and how is it you could have turned out you? Some kind of family tragedy had fused itself into some kind of literary gold.

"Even as I manufactured fiction from the events of my brother's life," Wideman wrote, "from the history of the family that had nurtured us both, I knew something of a different order remained to be extricated. The fiction writer was also a man with a real brother behind real bars. I continued to feel caged by my bewilderment."

As it happened, Robby Wideman never pulled the trigger in the murder he was eventually convicted of. He was the accomplice in a crime that started out as just a cheap robbery. But he got life. Many felt it a Draconian sentence. Today Robby Wideman takes trigonometry and computer courses from behind prison walls. The only way he could be set free is if his sentence were commuted.

And the explanation for Jake's crime? Who could know, although God knows there've been some pop-psychologizing attempts at explaining the unexplainable in such national magazines as Esquire and Vanity Fair. Last year both publications ran huge pieces about the Wideman saga. After all, it's one of the hotter stories around, a kind of tabloid dream: genius writer, thug relatives. The Esquire writer drew sharp parallels between Jake and the Robby of "Brothers and Keepers": "Psychiatrists who examined Jake would assert that the boy had perceived himself as 'a bad seed' -- the very metaphor his father had introduced in print."

Wideman refused to be interviewed for either the Esquire or Vanity Fair piece. All he'll say is that both articles hurt deeply, but that time is a doctor.

The boy who was stabbed to death in Flagstaff had known John Wideman's second son for seven camping summers. Eric Kane was one of those kids the other campers loved to pick on. There's always one. He was also bright and very giving. Kane didn't die instantly on the night of Aug. 13, 1986, as was originally believed. The dying took about two hours. By then Jake had already lit out across the night desert in a camp counselor's rented blue Olds. For eight days he ricocheted across a continent before he called his parents and turned himself in. The reunion, if that is the word, was in a Phoenix lawyer's office.

On Sept. 9, 1988, after two years of bitter legal battles, John Wideman's son, then 18, pleaded guilty in an Arizona court to murder in the first degree. His plea came in exchange for the prosecution's agreement to waive the death penalty.

The sentencing came a month later. It was a bitter thing, with the father of the slain boy, Sanford Kane, accusing the slayer's father in court of having created a "monster" and a "vicious animal." Kane charged that all the signs of violent tendencies and antisocial behavior had long been there in this highly intelligent boy, and that they had been steadfastly ignored by two self-absorbed parents. He read aloud part of a letter John Wideman had once sent him, about a year after Eric died. It was a letter not asking for forgiveness -- but granting it. Because, you see, the Kanes wanted Jake dead. They wanted the death penalty.

"Your need to see my son dead is part of what I've been struggling with," Wideman had written. "My initial reaction was to hate you for adding one more horror to an already unbearable burden. Though I continue to deplore the course of action you've chosen, now I've forgiven you for uttering and pursuing a wish for Jake's death."

Toward the end of last year, an undisclosed settlement was made in a $50 million wrongful death suit that the family of Eric Kane had brought against the family of Jacob Wideman.

But that's just money. There are even more dimensions to this tragedy. Jacob Wideman may yet be extradited to the high plains of Wyoming to stand trial for an earlier and even grislier murder of a 22-year-old waitress and university student. Ten months before Eric Kane died in Room 102 of a Flagstaff motel, Shelli Wiley was stabbed to death in the town of Laramie, and her head was bludgeoned by a blunt instrument. Afterward her apartment was torched. John Wideman's son has confessed to that murder, although he has also recanted his confession. Some wonder if the confession wasn't a bid for attention.

A Little War

How does it feel to be inhabited by more than one self? Clearer and clearer, in my son's case, that he is more and less than one. Perhaps his worst times are those when he's aware, in whatever horrifying form that awareness takes, that he must live many lives at once, yet have no life except the chaos produced by divided, warring selves.

-- from "Philadelphia Fire"

The huge hands come up to the face to rub fists into the dark hooded sockets of the eyes. "To tell you the truth, that fear of splintering off into many people. It's scary, isn't it?"

The word "scary" is about to repeat itself in this conversation. "I'm not in the business of selling John Wideman," he says. "Now I'm sure I could make quite a living doing that. It's a scary life. It's an amazing life. I mean, an awful lot has happened to me. I've done an awful lot."

He is asked why he does interviews at all. (Sales have to be part of the reason.)

Again, the considered answer. "I mean, I'm married to a white woman. David Duke wouldn't like that, would he? I bet there's graffiti on a wall not 100 yards from here. I bet it says black people are apes or something like that. Well, I do these interviews because maybe if I get the opportunity to speak, it's a little war against -- it's a little war to beat back the direction the culture is going."

The talk is moving back to MOVE -- after all, this is a book about a fire and a bomb in the City of Brotherly Love on May 13, 1985, isn't it?

A novelist was lounging around in his water bed in Laramie with his wife one evening (this is in the novel), playing master of the TV universe with his remote-control channel-gun when a conflagration came on the screen. It was Osage Avenue in West Philly. A bomb had just been dropped on an urban commune that had defied repeated orders to vacate. John Wideman once lived on Osage Avenue. He was horrified, he was outraged, he was stroked with inspiration, a book had just been born. Did he know?

"The weight of the event hit me. It was clear very quickly it had the kind of power and resonance that was a writing subject. I can't exactly say why it spoke to me as it did." So he responded and went to Philadelphia. He read documents, he interviewed many people. What he eventually wrote was not what anyone would call documentary realism. The novel's central character, Cudjoe, is a refugee from a sun-washed island in the Aegean.

One of the eerie things about MOVE, in more senses than one, that was to end up serving a writer perfectly, was that a small boy escaped the blaze that night, was seen fleeing, as if melting, into the flames, a kind of evanescent vision down an alley.

"I wish to make people recollect," the author is saying. "I want to pry the event loose from that collective amnesia that's settled on it... . I want people to re-imagine it, rethink this goddam fire... . What happened? What really happened there? Black mayor. Most of the neighbors black people, who wanted those people out of there. Wonder if a white mayor? Wonder if a white neighborhood? Re-imagine it."

On Page 7 of "Philadelphia Fire," there is this sentence: "Story of a fire and a lost boy that brought him home."

There are many kinds of fires to imagine. Some rage within. There are many kinds of lost boys to imagine, trying to make their way back home.