LAST FINE TIME

By Verlyn Klinkenborg

Knopf. 210 pp. $19.95

Verlyn Klinkenborg seems to be making a career of transmuting pedestrian topics into elegant prose. A couple of years ago he loosed his formidable gifts on hay, and the result was "Making Hay," a book that prompted more than one reviewer to compare him to the titan of that sort of thing, John McPhee. Now Klinkenborg is back from a grant year courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts with another literary redemption of an unpromising subject: the life and times of a family-owned bar in inner-city Buffalo.

In 1947, when Klinkenborg picks up the story, Polish immigrant Thomas Wenzek sold the bar and restaurant that bore his name to his son-in-law George and his son Eddie. They remodeled the place, renamed it George and Eddie's, and extended its draw beyond the immediate neighborhood to the greater Polish American community.

Twenty-three years later, by which time the business had been in the family nearly half a century, Eddie -- now the sole owner -- closed it down. In the meantime, almost all the Poles had moved to the suburbs, and the number of customers willing to drive back for drinks and camaraderie into what they perceived as a hostile black province had been dwindling. A few years after that, a black entrepreneur having tried and failed to make a go of the place, it was condemned and razed.

Not a prepossessing set of facts -- nor an uncommon one. The Bronx, Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis, dozens of older cities have witnessed the same dispersal of their ethnic clusters, the same isolation of once-thriving local institutions. Yet it is precisely this emblematic side of the tale that Klinkenborg accentuates. Subjected to his lust for detail, his immense vocabulary and gargantuan range of allusions, and the gyring dynamics of his prose style, the George and Eddie's story swells into an Elegy for Lost Innocence and Urbanity.

The note of regret is sounded early, when Klinkenborg conducts the reader on a tour by map of the bar's turf on the city's East Side. "Here, from some supernal height," he writes, "is visible the universal grid of urban living, as delicate a tracery as the lace on a christening gown. The tiniest squares are houses, every house an invisible suite of rooms through which daylight crawls and the smells of cooking percolate like moods. The feeling they stir comes from knowing that private life is a grave of incident -- once lived, soon forgotten -- and from trying to imagine the incidents of so many private lives without submitting to generalities. It is a feeling like compassion, but it also resembles the faith that existence is too varied, too ample, to be contained."

If that passage verges on the sententious, it is a rarity. Elsewhere the author evokes the old ways with such darting humor and restless trope-making that the moss of nostalgia has no chance to grow on his sentence structure. "Shopping down the row of butchers' stands {in the Broadway Market circa 1947}," he writes, "you could still rebuild a pig from scratch."

In a paragraph to clap hands over, he accounts for the squatty look of late 1940s design, when "everything was heavier. Turn down the street from George and Eddie's on a snowy afternoon and walk east to the nearest major intersection, the corner of Sycamore and Fillmore. Loaf-shaped buses lay charcoal exhaust trails on the new-fallen snow. A clock bulges outward from the brick facade of Antoinette's Ice Cream Lounge, the minutes and hours ticked by thick black hands. A two-bulb traffic signal sags from an overhead cable. Except for the buildings, the lines of everything manmade are faintly bulbous. Design devolves from the speediest object a culture can produce. In 1947, that object is still, in the popular mind, the B-29, the airship that flew the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions, a mirror-finished, cigar-snouted, torpedo-shaped bomber with rounded wing-tops and sharp lines only on its trailing edges."

For all its dazzle and depth, however, "The Last Fine Time" is fundamentally flawed. The error -- and it's one that McPhee never commits -- is that the Klinkenborgian voice eventually overwhelms its material. Eddie Wenzek, for one, seems to have a sly way with the English tongue. Telling an anecdote about a man who played violin for the Buffalo Philharmonic, Eddie pauses to interject, "When you're philharmonic anything, you're the best." Yet that direct statement, one of three -- maybe four -- quotelets from Eddie in the whole book, is all but swallowed up by the parentheses Klinkenborg wraps around it in the midst of paraphrasing the anecdote.

One might be inclined to excuse this pattern on familial grounds -- from several clues I infer that Klinkenborg is married to Eddie's daughter, and perhaps they all struck a deal whereby Eddie would spin his reminiscences on a not-for-direct-attribution basis -- except none of the other denizens gets to speak up either. That tendency to substitute auctorial pyrotechnics for pungent local inflections holds throughout the book. It's not until almost two-thirds of the way along that the reader even learns how a hypothetical Buffalo spieler might sound. The regional accent, Klinkenborg notes, again in parentheses, runs to flat o's, "as in 'bax of chacalates.' " Too bad one never actually hears anybody ask for those bonbons.

The book has many superlative moments, and I was tickled to add erumpent, scurf, spall, melismatic, reticulum and firkin to my vocabulary. But I regret to say that as a whole "The Last Fine Time" strikes me as a case of brilliance run tiresomely amok.

The reviewer is a Washington writer and editor.