OLYMPIA

By Dennis Bock

Bloomsbury USA. 252 pp. $22.95

To read Dennis Bock's first novel, "Olympia," is to take on water, in both senses of that phrase. Swimming, sailing, diving, even drowning--Bock's characters bleed pure water; it's the arena for their humiliations and redemptions. In this book about Olympic heroes whose mastery of the elements breeds the pride that goes before a fall, the sea is the universal metaphor. And metaphors become the sea out of which those heroes must crawl to survive.

The narrator of "Olympia" is Peter, the son and grandson of Germans who immigrated to Ontario after World War II. Peter considers his family charmed--and why not? His father, a yachtsman in the 1960 Olympics, builds boats that never sink. His paternal grandmother and grandfather (a bronze medalist in sailing) met while competing in the infamous 1936 Games in Berlin. Even his non-Olympic mother sews clothes that seem magically waterproof.

Peter and his sister, Ruby, perform gymnastics at family gatherings and dream of winning gold for Canada. As he puts it: "We were Olympians. No miracle seemed misplaced on us. . . . I knew that normal people did not fly, could not breathe underwater. But we did. I believed we were evolving."

But something's gone wrong on the way to the medal ceremony. As "Olympia" opens, a wave smacks the boat on which Peter's grandparents are renewing their vows; the grandmother (once a champion diver) is thrown overboard and disappears. Peter then meets his mother's Old Country relatives and is shocked at their awkwardness, how war has scarred them physically and emotionally. Later, Ruby contracts leukemia, and a bone marrow transplant from Peter fails. Their father's boats begin to leak, their parents to squabble. Peter drifts as an adult. Instead of higher evolution, the sense of a declining bloodline (ominously soon after bloodlines meant so much in Germany) presses down.

Perhaps, though, it's really the family's animating metaphors that have been corrupted. Where Peter's grandparents once married water and air with their athletic grace, now their descendants languish in parodies of those achievements. Peter's father obsessively chases tornadoes as his marriage falls apart. Ruby believes she can levitate. And Peter stages a marathon dead-man's float in a pool to raise money for cancer research, only to be swept into a river by a flood.

The only thing that can rescue these people, it seems, is a good dry spell. But when one finally comes, it's too late to save the book. "Olympia" is brief and elliptical, which doesn't stop it from being ambitious. Bock punctuates the book with snapshots from the Berlin Olympics (a race's false start, cruelty in the Jewish ghetto, Peter's grandfather whispering to Jesse Owens) as a counter-narrative to the official glory seen in that other "Olympia," Leni Riefenstahl's disquietingly seductive film of the event. And wrapped around these outtakes is Peter's teasing narration, with its constant suggestion of secrets to be revealed, of histories to be squared with History.

But the outtakes are just disorienting, not poetic or subversive. All the portentousness ruins the intensity of Peter's wounded remembrances. And when the revelations are at last made, readers will have already guessed them many pages before. The central problem with "Olympia" is that while Bock is a fine writer of small metaphors (and similes: "Her touch ran to the pit of my stomach like a vein of butterflies"), his big ones run away with the book. The relentless permutations of wetness soon become gimmicks that suffocate his characters. Peter's father is an especially unfortunate cipher. What must have been his very difficult transformation--from a man who disdains the past to one who respects it so much he'll reenact his parents' fatal remarriage ceremony--is utterly unreported. Instead, Bock is too busy tying up symbolic loose ends: pairing Peter with the Jewish granddaughter of athletes from the 1936 anti-fascist Olympics in Spain and then engineering a "miracle" that drains the book of water for good. Whatever power "Olympia" had, however, has long since been washed away.

About his own "Path to the Nest of Spiders," Italo Calvino wrote that "it would always be better not to have written one's first book." To have waited, he meant: to have measured out those first memories and images over a lifetime instead of forcing them into the big themes of a statement novel. In that light, "Olympia" feels as if it has yet to be written. A less abstracted, more intimate version might fulfill the promise of its interesting premise.

Robert Lalasz, a writer who lives in Arlington.