THE HONEY WALL

By Karen Latuchie

Norton. 290 pp. $23.95

Nina, the protagonist of Karen Latuchie's intriguing first novel, "The Honey Wall," makes artistic contraptions. The most elaborately described of these is named "Here. No, there," after an invented children's rhyme: "Here. No, there. / There's no there there. / Or here a here. / Here. No, there," etc. The device has a conveyor belt, six small wooden balls, a holding pen and a "slide . . . divided into four separate chutes -- two marked 'here,' two 'there' -- which, by elaborate, circuitous, noise-making pathways eventually deposited the balls back into the pen. A continual, random, and, as long as the battery lasted, endless loop."

Nina's contrivance reflects the structure of Latuchie's book: One "chute" guides Nina and her lover Tony through the episodes of their tumultuous relationship -- they're powerfully drawn to each other, though their lives are separate, and fidelity is an ongoing issue. Another "chute" moves Nina's neighbor Bill (they live across from each other in a small town in Vermont) into and out of an explosive sexual adventure he had long ago with Eva, his sister-in-law. Bill tells Nina how Eva seduced him in 1950 to regain the interest of her husband, Bill's brother, Joe. Latuchie alternates sections of these stories to produce structural tension.

Sexual excitement sets these characters moving into their "chutes": Seeing Tony at a party, Nina "watched him move through the crowd, watched other women watch. She had thought: I'm going to have this, thinking only as far as the rest of that night." Though not married, Nina and Tony have been together for 20 years when their relationship reaches a crisis in 1994 -- a conversation about their separate infidelities provokes Nina to make accusations that infuriate Tony and drive him out of their house. So she's especially vulnerable to Bill's story, even though she has little in common with the old man other than the fact that he lives across the road. Bill tells her the last part of his story only a couple of months before he dies of emphysema. Though the way Eva used Bill irreparably damaged him, the two reach a kind of reconciliation. It's Eva who goes "house to house along Riveredge Road to collect money for a pine box" so that he can be buried respectably.

A minor character who's enthralled with Nina's "Here. No, there" contraption, says of it: "It's a little like life itself. . . . Things go one way or the other or another in life and what decides it? . . . A precise but unpredictable moment of timing and decision. The force of the wind. The size of the moon. What you had for dinner last night. Anything at all. . . . And sometimes the unpredictability is dizzying. But if we're lucky, we eventually discern pattern in the lack of it. And that's enough to keep us moving forward. . . . In our circular ways." The endless loop is the vision this novel presents -- one can't say "celebrates" because its optimism is so measured.

"The Honey Wall" is well written and intelligently steamy, as might be expected from an author who has worked, as Latuchie has, as an editor for Knopf for 25 years. But the novel is also shockingly flawed: Nina makes her living as an auto mechanic, but we never see her at work, and the book offers no evidence that she knows anything more about cars than how to drive them. She has a significant affair with Nick, with whom she works at the garage, but we get to see them together only briefly in a crowded barroom. She has the capacity to put down an art critic by telling him that "she thought he was a very fine writer since he so clearly expressed the full range of his arrogance, pretension, and stupidity in his reviews," but she gives no evidence of being a reader of any sort, not to mention of art criticism. And many pages are devoted to her consideration of "the world" -- she discovers that she likes walking in the woods, and she studies the ice in the river near where she lives -- but these passages only demonstrate that her interior life is moderately interesting.

Even so, at the end of "The Honey Wall," one takes pleasure in the design of the thing. Problematic though it may be, the contraption is sort of charming.