In Victorian times the high middle ground of literature may have been overcrowded. In recent years it has been almost deserted, as writers of literary ambition fled in terror lest they be tainted by its association with some need for moral force and good sense. But Judith Guest, who enjoyed considerable success with her first novel, ''Ordinary People,'' has with ''Second Heaven'' again deservedly claimed this middle ground for her own.
Guest is a writer whose particular talent is to articulate the concerns and interests of, well, ordinary people. She describes with sympathy those who, for the most part, live or aspire to live on that high middle ground where good and evil do struggle, where happiness is not expected to come easily, and love is a giving, not a taking.
The main characters are a trio of two adults and an adolescent, whose lives resemble three lines narrowing until they meet, rather than three points of a triangle destined always to be separate. Cat, recently divorced by her husband, realizes that there is no longer anyone to tell her what to do, and that she must ''take her life and give it a good shake.'' She buys a run-down cottage near Detroit and begins haphazardly to restore it while she works part-time at an art gallery. She is, in short, and for the first time in many years, happy, though it is the kind of happiness often dismissed as banal or trivial.
Mike Atwood is a middle-aged lawyer who meets Cat when she chooses him to handle her divorce. She found him in the Yellow Pages, where she went right to the A's, as she did for everything - plumbers and repairmen of all kinds. Mike's wife has left him because, it seems, everything was too comfortable. She has remarried and has taken their two children with her to Washington. Mike, a man of good, decent domestic habits, misses his children and is saddened by the knowledge that they are leading lives far distant and unfamiliar to him, but he is too sensible to despair. ''My life is falling apart,'' he had thought, ''but even as the words dropped into his mind he rejected them. Too dramatic.''
Gale Murray, a teen-age boy almost irreparably harmed by the savagery of his fanatically religious father, represents the third line. His sudden appearance and subsequent stay in Cat's home is the ultimate cause of the three lines converging in an ending we know will be happy, though Guest is suddenly in too much of a hurry to dispel a few nagging doubts about Gale's easy recovery.
His vengeful father has Gale arrested at school and taken to a juvenile detention center to await a hearing. The father wants his son to be sent to prison as a punishment for his running away from home. The boy has been so harmed by his father's abuse that he can conceive of no other outcome to the hearing. Mike, who has been asked by Cat to represent the boy in court, is discouraged by his reluctance to put up any fight.
Judith Guest's acute perceptions of how most of us feel and think makes ''Second Heaven'' especially noteworthy. She eschews the sensational, knowing that restrained reporting of the unpleasant is more effective. In describing the journey of these three people to a satisfactory equilibrium, she has given us a book that is neither pop schlock nor great literature but a work of humanity and good sense to which we can respond with pleasure.