If the dominant theme of American fiction is, as some critics have claimed, the search for the father, Anthony West would seem to fit very neatly into the literary tradition of his adopted country.
Even before emigrating to the United States in 1950, West says, he had been planning this biography of H. G. Wells, who is referred to, throughout the book, as ''my father.''
Anthony West, who was born out of wedlock to Wells and Rebecca West,loves and admires this endearing man. Wells was a champion of free love, women's rights, and progressive socialism, a self-made individual who rose through his own efforts and talents despite paternal indifference and active maternal discouragement.
Current mythology notwithstanding, behind some great men may stand a carping, wet blanket of a mother. Sarah Wells hated to see her son turn down the opportunity to be a draper's assistant, but Wells persevered in his literary career.
His interest in politics and the natural sciences, coupled with his keen imagination, made him an author of memorable science fiction, and his intuitive grasp of ''the shape of things to come'' made him something of a prophet. No one who has read the closing pages of his 1909 novel, ''Tono-Bungay,'' is likely to forget his chilling account of ''Quap,'' a miraculous new substance whose radioactivity heralds the breakdown of all matter and the proliferative cancer of infinite decay. Nor, as West points out, should we forget why the hero of ''Tono-Bungay'' becomes involved with this lethal substance: for the sake of a quick profit that he knows will be only short-term.
West also reminds us of his father's foresight in political affairs. Just after the turn of the century, Wells vainly urged his fellow Fabians to support the then-infant British Labour Party. Later, in 1934, an interview with Stalin made Wells abandon his hopes for a Soviet-Western rapprochement, although he was unable to convince many of his fellow leftistds in Britain of Stalin's implacable loathing for Western-style democracies.
But West's biography is not so much a study of Wells, the thinker and writer, as an attempt to vindicate Wells, the man - the father who, at the opening of this book, has left his 21-year-old mistress, Rebecca West, alone to give birth to their child, Anthony. Its beginning, in light of the diatribe against his mother in his new introduction to his autobiographical novel ''Heritage'' (reviewed here May 17), is unexpectedly sympathetic to his mother's plight. West proceeds throughout the rest of the book, however, to excuse his father and blame his mother, and to rescue Wells's reputation from any and all attempts to diminish or distort it. He is chiefly concerned with undoing his mother's efforts to tell her side of the story, but he is just as eager to poke holes in novelist Dorothy Richardson's account of her affair with Wells and to refight his father's old battles with Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb.
West's subtitle, ''Aspects of a Life,'' provides a clue to his organizing principle. This is not a straightforward, chronological account of Wells's life or a close analysis of his thought. West focuses, instead, on a series of contretemps in a kind of ''Six Crises'' approach to his father's personal history. He goes over each of his father's ''crises'' with a fine-toothed comb: Wells's involvement with William Morris's socialism and with the Webbs' Fabianism, his flight from George Gissing's deathbed, and his ill-starred affair with Amber Reeves, the daughter of his Fabian Society colleagues.
Occurring, as it did, only shortly before Wells was to become involved with the young Rebecca West, the story of how he tried to deal with the consequences of the Amber affair reads like a dress rehearsal for his dealings with Rebecca. Anthony, however, manages to see his father as being as innocent the second time around as he was the first.
West's unabashed partisanship in defense of his father and his provocative attacks on Wells's detractors make compelling, if sometimes irritating, reading. In his zeal to demonstrate that Wells stood for honesty and truth, however, West is too often prepared to assume or assert that those who disagreed with him stood for deceit and lies.
It is one thing for West to point out that Gissing led a double life which he had concealed from Wells, and quite another for West to expect his readers to look down on Gissing for believing Carlyle's ''Sartor Resartus'' (which West dismisses as ''stupefying'') an important book and for considering Ruskin a great man. The highhanded style of West's put-downs makes one wonder if his other judgments have been equally arbitrary.
In dealing with the exchange that led to the final breakup of Wells and Rebecca, their son not only casts serious doubts upon her version of events, but also decides to turn the dispute into a showdown between right-thinking, scientific truth-seeking (Wells, of course) and deceitful, subjective, reactionary aestheticism (which West associates with his mother and Matthew Arnold). West takes up the cudgels on behalf of his father, science, and democracy in a passage that is a curious jumble of vivacity and crudity: ''(Wells) told her that it wasn't a bit of good for her to come it over him as a . . . a dedicated artist, or to bring up dear old Henry J(ames)'s self-serving guff about the . . . creative process. . . . She knew as well as he did that the arts had come in with full bellies and spare time, and that careers devoted to contemplation and the inner life were features of societies that boasted such institutions as caste, slavery, and investments.''
West's attempt to impugn his mother's veracity may raise some doubts. His attempts to disparage her intellectual capacities are more likely to arouse incredulity.