THE SILVER SCREEN

By Maureen Howard

Viking. 244 pp. $24.95

Along a quiet road on a spit of land that looks across the water in Rhode Island, a quiet, pretty girl, Isabel Maher, lives with her father -- who dreams of catching and controlling time by making the perfect watch. She is courted by Mr. Murphy, who sells insurance, and it looks as if life is set out for her like ducks in a row. Then she runs away to Hollywood, is fortunate enough to be one of the beautiful girls picked out of the pack of aspiring actresses, and cavorts with Fatty Arbuckle, maybe Charlie Chaplin. It's still in the days of the silents: Isabel's voice, however lovely, is never used.

It's not very glamorous out here in Hollywood. Isabel has an affair with her director and another with a Jewish parlor-socialist writer who insists to her that she comes from the working class. The ham-handed director speaks to her stupidly once too often, and -- after three very successful years -- Isabel says to hell with it, and returns to that spit of land in Rhode Island. She marries Murphy (who has sustained an injury in World War I but is otherwise a saint), and they live with her watchmaking dad.

Isabel has "given it all up" for an astonishingly ordinary life. She wears faded wash dresses now, instead of gleaming satin. She plants a large garden ("The Silver Screen" is part of a "Four Seasons" series the author has been working on, and it's always summer in this novel). There's no word on how she spends her snowy winters. She has two children, Rita, chubby and unlovable, and Joe, upon whom she dotes, with one string attached: "Her boy would wear a black soutane" -- that is, become a Catholic priest. This little family is filled out by a scruffy little neighbor girl, Gemma, the deserted offspring of a mobster, who is crazy about Isabel Maher and makes her a role model. (Gemma will grow up to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer.)

If I read correctly, "The Silver Screen" aims to show us that the most ordinary lives are steeped in myth, tradition, culture. Isabel spends all of her life -- when she's not gardening -- pondering the pages of "Moby-Dick" and what the whiteness of that whale really means. Joe, reading Ovid's "Metamorphosis," comes upon Io, the beautiful white heifer who yearns to speak out but can't. In the manner of callow boys everywhere, he informs his sister, "You're a cow." Yes, she is, a beautiful, mythical one, but no one "sees" or understands her.

Joe, as he becomes a priest, wrestles passionately with St. Ignatius Loyola's spiritual exercises. He has an affair, gets sent to El Salvador but is inexorably losing his faith, whatever he had of it. Isabel's father gets older and dies. Isabel's husband gets older and dies. Isabel gets older and dies. Rita the sullen/mythical white cow/sister joins an old gangster/boyfriend in the witness protection program. She's back out west in Los Angeles, but her L.A., far from being Tinseltown, is a condo in Tarzana, in the bowels of the San Fernando Valley. Not surprisingly, like her mother so many years before, Rita soon comes to the conclusion that she's not living her own life.

Joe, old now, finds himself in a bad patch of spiritual dryness. He doesn't much believe what he's supposed to believe, and he has only one priest friend. (That girl he had an affair with early in the book got pregnant by him, found out he was a priest, bowed gracefully out, bore their baby and then drowned. He has a child out there of whom he's not aware.) We can assume Joe's not living his life either.

It's impossible to exaggerate the number of literary allusions in this book. Besides Melville, Loyola's spiritual exercises and the legend of Io, we have nursery rhymes aplenty, long quotes from George Bernard Shaw, Gilbert and Sullivan, dozens of metaphysical poets, plus Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe. Photographers also make their appearances: Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans, accompanied by the loquacious James Agee. Clocks are important here -- as were almanacs in Howard's "A Lover's Almanac" -- so we see watches and clocks of every time and shape, starting, stopping, breaking.

To be frank, I just wanted to know why Isabel Maher came back from Hollywood and chose to live life with two kids, a garden and a zombie husband. Everyone asks her, and she even gives a rambling answer from the grave, but why does she do it, really? Why does Joe remain a priest when everyone else is leaving the order? Why does Rita stay with her mother when she dislikes her so? Why does Gemma disrespect her own talent?

I imagine -- again, if I read correctly -- that this novel and these characters involve a search for the authentic, which is a noble undertaking. But shouldn't your characters be authentic to start with? Shouldn't they at least be able to carry their share of the story? Isabel, Joe and Rita feel like pawns in the author's larger literary plan. To me, they fail to come alive. But I've been wrong plenty of times before, and maybe I am again.