Bleak tale from a novelist worth watching; The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica, by John Calvin Batchelor. New York: The Dial Press. 401 pp. $16.95.

Icelandic saga and Teutonic legend are the influences that shaped this most curious futuristic first novel. Writer and critic John Calvin Batchelor has concocted a tale of exile and conflict centering on ''the exodus of several hundred thousand wretches into the Antarctic over the decade of epic ruin that closed the twentieth century.''

Its hero, Grim Fiddle, is the son of an American draft dodger and a Swedish teen-age girl possessed of assorted magical powers. His life assumes the shape of an impassioned, doomed quest for goodness; the murderous drift of the present century, in concert with his own aggressive and criminal impulses, bring Grim to a chagrined conclusion that it is not possible for man to be truly good.

Like much current fiction in tone, this novel displays a carefully calibrated progression into nihilism and despair. It is weakened by its frequent abstractedness and talkiness, and by a kind of Vonnegutian-Brautiganian cuteness that bestows on Batchelor's characters annoyingly clever names (Cleopatra Furore , Peregrine Ide, Germanicus Frazer, and many others) and irrelevantly zany personal traits. It's an ambitious, perverse, vast wreck of a book - frustrating yet emblematic of a young writer worth watching.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.