BRADOVICH

By William Herrick

New Directions. 202 pp. $18.95

William Herrick's "Bradovich" is a vigorous and unrelenting parable, politically charged, that appears to have high on its agenda the reintroduction of Franz Kafka to today's literary audience. Given the various recent incursions on individual rights in our world, the ideological burden of this novel -- the state can arbitrarily invade one's life at any moment -- is quite timely. Kafka was prescient.

The eponymous central figure of this book is an imposing former professional football lineman turned internationally prominent sculptor. Bradovich is in his late sixties, ceaselessly his own man, and one of those literary creations who unfolds before us in a declamatory "get to know me and my opinions" mode; he has his gruff, visceral charm, but he is not nearly so interesting to others as he is to himself. He attracts and repels by virtue of his expansive sense of self.

But one day an eerie thing happens. Two stone-faced strangers appear in Bradovich's apartment. "My wallet's in my back left pocket. Take it and leave," he tells them. They say: "We're not here to rob you, that's against the rules. You are under surveillance, pending review, that's the message The Authority sends you."

From this point on, Bradovich is tailed constantly. Periodically, inexplicably, The Authority's operatives will break in on Bradovich simply to demonstrate their omnipotence. For example, showering after a particularly pleasant assignation with his lover, Bradovich yanks open the curtain to find one of The Authority's men with an "ugly grin on his stony face. Before Bradovich could draw back, The Authority's operative jabbed him viciously in the solar plexus."

Later The Authority interrupts a television program Bradovich is watching to intone: "You will be given ample opportunity to take the stand. For your own sake, do not hurry it. Surveillance continues. You are confined to the city limits." You can imagine the hollow voice. (It goes without saying that Bradovich never learns what he is supposed to be guilty of.)

The Authority is ineffable, supra-official, like the bureaucracy in Kafka's "The Trial" (Bradovich, however, is no Joseph K.), and it does more than simply keep track of Bradovich's every move. When Bradovich decides to flee New York to visit his children and grandchildren on the opposite coast, acquiring tickets at the Cosmic Travel Agency proves difficult:

"Bradovich stood before the door of the Cosmic Travel Agency at 10 a.m. It was closed. A sign read WILL OPEN AT 2 P.M. When he returned a few minutes after 2, the sign read AT 3 P.M. At 3 p.m. the sign said the agency would not reopen until the following morning at 10 a.m... .

"Now he decided to phone an airline which serviced the west coast directly. He kept getting a busy signal. He dialed all hours of the day and night. After innumerable attempts he finally got through and was told to hold until a booking clerk became available. They bored him with nonmusic music. He held on for forty-five minutes, then gave up in disgust."

And so it goes. When he does finally, miraculously, buy tickets, they are quickly stolen by one of The Authority's operatives. In addition to its measure of paranoia, the novel offers absurdist theater.

The surreal shadow The Authority casts upon Bradovich's life is leavened some by the sculptor's irrepressible vitality, and by the novel's other characters. Bradovich's best friend, Golo the Gimp, is one of the world's great clowns; he and his twin brother, a dwarf Bradovich meets when he finally does escape New York to visit his children in California, appear to have parachuted in from a Nathanael West novel. Slim, the unslim doorman, fled a TV sitcom.

There's no point in giving the verdict for Bradovich's personal Judgment Day, but it should be said that the moment is somewhat anticlimactic. That's so, I think, because while "Bradovich" has many Kafkaesque attributes, it lacks the truly heartsick, oppressive weight of "The Castle" or "The Metamorphosis." Herrick's point that individual rights are as nothing to the state is well taken, but his inscrutable Authority lacks a convincing psychopathic mien and Bradovich is not character enough to make up the difference.

The reviewer was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Citation for Excellence in Reviewing in 1990.