SOME PEOPLE, SOME OTHER PLACE

By J. California Cooper

Doubleday. 368 pp. $24.95

The never-fail test of any novel is whether it seriously disrupts your daily schedule: If you let the kids wait an extra 10 minutes at school so you can get to the end of a chapter, if you pick up the book at lunch even if there are friends at the table, if you stay up late reading the damn thing when you have to get up early the next morning. A novel may have flaws -- and this one certainly does -- but you can't argue with it. You can't stop to argue. You've got to go on reading.

"Some People, Some Other Place" is narrated by an unborn child who, before being conceived, has a pretty good idea of who his (or her) mother is -- and who that mother's family is. He (or she) tells us that family story in the elusive moments before sperm and egg finally meet up.

The birth will occur to a sweet, kind African American woman who -- by the time of this long-awaited conception -- will have endured much more than her share of hardship and tribulations. The back-story begins in 1895, when the baby-to-be's great-great-grandparents move from the very deep South to Oklahoma, then pause for a generation or two, moving gradually in a long journey to Chicago, getting bogged down at every step by grinding poverty and what seems like an endless stream of children.

Eula Too, who will become this unborn child's mother, is one of 15 siblings. Her own mother, Eula the first, is demoralized, helpless, dependent, bad-tempered and depressed. At first trapped by poverty, she now appears to wallow in it. Eula Too gets stuck with the hard work of raising most of the kids. She sneaks off some of the time to learn a little of the finer things in life from a spinster schoolteacher, and -- to finance her own quest to Chicago -- allows an impotent man to fondle her.

She's still a virgin, technically, when she runs away to the big city. On her very first night away from home, she's cruelly raped and left by the side of a lonely road. Then she's very improbably rescued by a prosperous madam from a nearby whorehouse -- a white woman who's made friends with powerful financiers from all over the world. This is a private house, understand, a little like Sir Stephen's villa in "The Story of O." The madam only wants the young Eula Too as a protegee and then a friend. No sex for her! Just a fortuitous ticket to education about the ways of the big city and white, Western civilization. I didn't believe a word of all that, and you wouldn't either, but that doesn't mean I could stop reading.

Eula Too learns that the entire world is rigged to rob the poor and benefit the rich, that the rich enthusiastically engage in war as a profit-making device -- a proposition that, even if you believe it, is presented more than ham-handedly here. Eula Too goes on to have a baby (from that one and only sexual encounter), a girl named Jewel who grows up to be a self-serving, venal witch. And when Eula Too goes home for a visit, she finds her mother enormously fat and shamelessly whining. Those siblings have become good-for-nothing layabouts who live on the money she dutifully sends to her family. What in the world can possibly happen to save Eula Too from her fate as an unloved, unappreciated, human bank account?

After about a hundred pages of the whorehouse material, the madam's mother dies, Eula's mother dies, the house shuts down and almost every character moves back to the madam's childhood home. It's in a sleepy river town called Place, on a street that houses a dozen or so families of different races living together in uneasy peace. What we see next is a highly allegorical sampler of what makes up the American working class: There's a sad Irish widow perishing from loneliness, a discontented young African American wife who behaves villainously because she was abandoned at birth, a Chinese mail-order bride who saves her pennies for schooling and endures mistreatment from her ever-toiling husband. And, luckily, there's a handsome black man, recently widowed . . . .

By far the most interesting character in this totally implausible narrative is Lona, the sociopathically mean young wife. She's stolen almost everything she owns, cruelly starves one of her children and even attempts, halfheartedly, to poison her mother-in-law. She's as vicious as Eula Too is virtuous, and a lot more fun. All this, remember, is told to us by that unborn child, who clues us in on not one but two attempted poisonings, delivers two separate tirades on the evils of the income tax, comes out 100 percent on the side of God and never fails to warn us about the machinations of the ever-scheming Devil.

It's a kooky book! Sometimes it barely makes sense. But in its attention to domestic detail and "everyday life," it may tell us more about African American life than the literary flights of Alice Walker or Toni Morrison. (I have to say that, at least, to mount some kind of respectable argument for how much I liked it.) I don't know about those rapacious white capitalists, though; they make Ken Lay look like Goldilocks. I couldn't begin to believe them. But what can I tell you? I have no defense! I was hypnotized. I was helpless. I couldn't stop reading.