OSCAR WILDE DISCOVERS AMERICA

By Louis Edwards

Scribner. 287 pp. $24

Two big subjects vie for attention in the title of Louis Edwards's third novel, and it is hard to say which of them is larger: the clamor of an industrializing American nation just emerging from the crucible of the Civil War, or the serene self-regard of the great decadent aesthete Oscar Wilde. Yet "Oscar Wilde Discovers America" is much more than the storied clash of sensibilities that occurs within traditional novels that pit Old Europe against the New World. Indeed, the title notwithstanding, the book is mainly the story of William Traquair, the black valet whom Wilde hired to accompany him on his year-long 1882 lecture tour through America and Canada, and the sensibilities clashing within him.

Edwards stumbled upon fleeting references to Traquair in Richard Ellmann's magisterial biography of Wilde and tracked down a few newspaper clippings in which the valet was also briefly characterized as "likely-looking . . . liver-colored" -- and, as the racist condescension of the day would have it, an unlikely bearer of "an intelligent face." From these spare mentions, Edwards -- the author of two earlier, highly regarded meditations on racial identity, "Ten Seconds" and "N" -- has invented an ingenious, engaging fictional account of Traquair's young life, a bildungsroman in which Wilde is cast in the role of mentor to a restless, love-starved African American aesthete. As the novel gathers momentum, it becomes clear that Traquair's story is, after all, as rich and suggestive as anything to be gleaned from either the nation's history or Wilde's heroic provocations and posturings for art's sake.

Traquair is, among other things, something of a symbol of the revived Union's new trans-racial promise: The son of a former slave, he has grown up in the household of white New York widower Charles Gable, who employs his father as a valet -- and who treats William as the equal of Gable's own young son, Baxter. Already, though, the steady approach of adulthood is threatening William's comparatively privileged glimpses of an America moving beyond race; he gets a bitter taste of things to come when his childhood playmate and best friend Baxter is duly shipped off, first to Harvard and then to a postgraduation tour of Europe, while William makes do in the Maine wilderness of Bowdoin, and then comes back to live with his parents in the Gable house, fretting in recent-graduate fashion over what to do with his life.

But the opportunity to serve Wilde -- arranged via connections of the elder Gable -- lifts William out of his funk. Like many of the age's educated youth, Traquair is already disposed to regard Wilde as a thrilling insurgent muse to a new generation -- the 19th-century equivalent of a rock star. Wilde in turn takes an instant liking to his young charge, and the effect on William is predictably electrifying. He soon sets about honing his own quasi-Wildean flourishes of comportment: the ready, scandalous quip, the aesthete's love of paradox, and the willful, promiscuous blurring of reality and illusion, truth and fabrication. And like Wilde, the light-skinned William is vain enough to rely in a pinch on "the crutch of his comeliness" -- especially as their tour leads him into assorted urban red-light districts that permit his virginity to be one of the tour's early casualties.

At the same time, however, Traquair is unwittingly launched on a journey of self-discovery, one that won't be well served by the cunning artifices of the aesthetic movement. A chance encounter with a Philadelphia shoeshine yields a series of contacts in black communities in cities on the itinerary -- along with the query "Who are your people?," for which Traquair realizes he has no good answer. Putting the same question to his father on a New York stopover, Traquair learns of a long-lost uncle, bitterly estranged from his father, whom he tracks down in San Francisco. Once he tugs at this strand of the family past, much of its skein unravels; a series of revelations unsettles most of the family arrangements he has long taken for granted.

Any novel featuring Oscar Wilde as a central character places a high premium on energetic and witty speech, and Edwards, a skilled hand at both dialogue and characterization, for the most part rises admirably to the challenge. (One representative sample of Edwards's ingeniously composed Wilde-isms, from the same Newport, R.I., social gathering: "War is but another mode of peace. It is peace at peace"; "The only critics worth answering are those who don't pose any questions"; "To love Christ truly and to believe fully in God is to be out of touch with one's humanity.")

At other times, however, Edwards's own thematic ambitions get away from him, and he delivers readers into credulity-straining set pieces, as when Wilde incites a group of Pennsylvania miners to gunfire with a dramatic oration on the career of Jesse James, or when he holds forth on the deeper aesthetic meaning of the Civil War while Traquair stares raptly into Wilde's "blue and gray eyes," which of course "lent Oscar's words a subliminal sincerity and force." There is also a good deal of needless prophesying, both from Wilde's lips (he improbably forecasts the birth of jazz, in his visit to New Orleans, no less) and about Wilde's life (a visit with former Confederate president Jefferson Davis hints none too subtly at Wilde's later career-destroying sexual scandals and imprisonment).

Yet these are minor complaints in a book that gives us a vivid and refreshingly undidactic portrait of a protagonist reaching after an identity his country is not yet decent enough to grant him. In an epilogue, we learn that in later life Traquair's fortunes never rose to meet his ambitions, but that he has also achieved a measure of genuine peace in his anonymous repose: "Though he was not special, though he was not like Oscar or any other great man or woman, he had a reason to live. No, not merely a reason: life, for him, was an imperative born of his relative insignificance." Or as Wilde put it, in terms inevitably grander and more colorful: "Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected."