Moral fiction from Golding; Rites of Passage, by Willian Golding. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $10.95 .

A novel by William Golding can usually be counted on for two things: a concern with moral questions and the narrative approach to force a fresh look at them. "Rites of Passage," from its freighted title on, is no exception, though it seems conventional beside the mythmaking trio of books with which Golding first put his stamp on contemporary fiction many years ago.

Recall how "Lord of the Flies" shook up notions of civilized society from the grim slant of not-so-innocent children lost on an island; how "Pincher Martin" looked through the eyes of a castaway on a lonely rock to probe the limits of what could be stripped from human existence without destroying humannes; how "The Inheritors" sought to plumb other elemental depths of humanity in a tour de force of evoking the mental processes of a prehistoric race on the watershed between instinct and reason.

By contrast, "Rites of Passage" seems like Golding in a relaxed mood. He has chosen a well-worn period, the Napoleonic era; and well-worn forms, a journal and a long letter. A somewhat foppish young Briton is on the way to government service in the Antipodes aboard an old military ship turned to carrying emigrants and others. He is chronicling the journey for his godfather and patron back home. He tries to be amusing as well as dutiful.

For quite a while the reader feels becalmed. Golding achieves a remarkable sense of the language, wit, and attitudes of another time. There is a sustained irony -- and no small trick -- in Golding's use of the young man's words to make us think that we know more than he does, or at least that he is not understanding all he observes or the motley crew and passengers he meets. But to what avail? Nothing seems to be happening. And this young man really isn't that much fun, with his double-entendre in describing an amorous adventure, his dollops of vulgarity and condescension.

Still this is Golding. Flickerings of wickedness and perversion appear. A minor character becomes major. He is a futile man of the cloth, browbeaten by the ship's captain, pitifully cheered by a crumb of kindness, involved in an episode so demeaning that he appears to will his own demise. To him the ship, like so many vessels in literature, is a "universe in little." To our young man, who may not be as shallow as he seems, it becomes a "tyranny in little," certainly not a classless society. And the moral question for him is whether he is in some way responsible for the minister's plight -- and thus for doing something to help him out of it. He is a little like the latter-day observer who wondered if President Kennedy might never have been assassinated if someone had chosen to invite the unhappy Lee Oswald to lunch that day.

As the rites of passage become clearer and more grotesque, we are somewhere back with the Golding who said of "Lord of the Flies": "The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system, however apparently logical or respectable." Or with the character in another Golding society, the concentration camp in "Free Fall": "All day long action is weighed in the balance and found not opportune nor fortunate or ill-advised, but good or evil."

What is good or what is evil may not always seem the same to Golding characters as to Golding readers. But the need to care about the distinctions is part of what he has seen as the cement of civilization not subject to laboratory test: the morality of one individual's relationship to another rather than to societies or to posterity. It is too bad the theme gets encumbered by an accompanying exploitation of the dark/droll atmospherics in "Rites of Passage."

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