Gaddis's dense satire of greed is often amusing, mostly confusing

Carpenter's Gothic, by William Gaddis. New York: Viking. 262 pp. $16.95. Author of just three novels in 30 years, William Gaddis has attained the status of a contemporary James Joyce. His books are complicated and difficult constructions. They eschew straightforward communication with the reader because their manifest intent is the expression of a single controlling theme: the omnipresence and dominance of mendacity and greed in human dealings, and the likelihood -- stronger than ever in his new novel -- that this folly is suicidal, and may lead to extinction.

Gaddis's great first novel, ``The Recognitions'' (1955), a labyrinthine analysis of art forgery and ``fakery'' in general across the international scene, is a vast, ramshackle edifice so filled with comic subplots and bizarre personalities that it's an invigorating joy to plow through. ``J. R.'' (1975), which won a National Book Award that was probably belated ``recognition'' for its predecessor, struck me when new as a brilliant and imaginative satire on American commerce and commercial app etite. It's the story, told almost entirely through dialogue, of a preadolescent boy who becomes a powerful business tycoon; rereading it recently, I found it turgid and exhausting.

Both these earlier books are reissued, in handsome Penguin paperback editions, to accompany the appearance of ``Carpenter's Gothic,'' which is shorter and shapelier than either of them. But it falls far short of the comic brio and synthesizing power of ``The Recognitions,'' and even deeper into the trap of obsessive mannerism that snared ``J. R.''

It contains the usual Gaddis mixture of energetic monomaniacs and the ineffectual people who try, and fail, to oppose them. The book is mostly dialogue: Its characters shout and rant and insist on their visions of things -- and they do not communicate. Telephones keep ringing: the calls are cryptic or meaningless, or are placed to persons who aren't there to answer. Conversations -- when they are that, and not just self-enclosed monologues -- are carried out in run-on sentences continually interru pted by distractions and second thoughts. Nothing that's begun gets completed, and nobody tunes in to what anybody else is saying.

The plot, so far as I can comprehend it, goes as follows: Vietnam veteran Paul Booth and his wife, Liz, whose ill health has forced them to leave New York City, rent an old ``carpenter gothic'' house upstate on the Hudson River, from a geologist named McCandless, who's eternally off globehopping for mysterious business enterprises.

Paul is a self-employed ``media consultant'' whose chief client is one Reverend Ude, a Southern Baptist superstar evangelist with a rabid television following and a ``Voice of Salvation'' radio mission beginning to attract converts in darkest Africa. A corrupt United States senator (``the best . . . money can buy'') looms as the means of securing a needed Federal Communications Commission license for the Reverend Ude's radio machinations.

Other things are happening vis-`a-vis Africa, including an international struggle for control of a lucrative mining operation (in which were possibly involved both McCandless and Liz's deceased father, whose huge estate -- tied up in unending litigation -- keeps promising great wealth to her and her brother Billy, a latter-day hippie with a cadre of very strange friends). It all connects with Paul's assorted scams and hustles and get-rich-quick schemes, and it all ends as the United States, flexing its capitalist muscles, explodes a ``demo'' nuclear device off the African coast. The pot is aboil.

There is indeed promising material for satire here, and some parts of the novel are monstrously funny. Images of failure and breakdown, both domestic and global, are artfully scattered about, and there are several wonderful set-pieces (such as Paul's long, fawning phone conversation with the minister's teen-age son Bobbie Joe).

But it's all too schematically pessimistic. Gaddis's Jeremiah-like emphasis on the lust for money and power becomes unrelenting and monotonous. Worse, the characters aren't strong enough to leap forth from the frame and command our attention. Paul is a cacophonous bore. McCandless (he's candle-less, without light) is a cardboard diabolist. His ``vision of disorder'' and ``sense of wrongness'' aren't rooted in anything credibly personal; they're simply there, haranguing us. Even Liz, potentially sympathe tic because she's their victim, is annoyingly passive.

It's also excruciatingly hard to get through. Relax your attention for a single paragraph, and you've missed something crucial, and must reread. If the vision the novel offers were sufficiently striking or original, I'd say: work at it; it's worth it. Alas, it isn't. ``Carpenter's Gothic'' can be recommended only to William Gaddis's most devoted admirers. The rest of us may be grateful for the reemergence of ``The Recognitions,'' in the hope it will find the new generation of readers it unquestionably d eserves.

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