INTERIOR by Justin Cartwright, New York: Random House, 244 pp., $17.95 A SARDONIC but morally pointed tale, ``Interior'' offers mystery, romance, humor, and a plot line spanning three continents as the European narrator searches in Africa for his long-lost explorer father, for his own interior identity, and for ultimate truths about life.
Justin Cartwright, an English South African, has previously written a spy novel and a historical romance about a family in southern Africa. This was good preparation for producing a sophisticated piece of popular fiction. The problem with ``Interior'' is that the author tries to make it more - and overreaches himself.
His striking descriptions and asides reveal Cartwright as a talented stylist with an intimate knowledge of Africa, England, and the United States, and a provocative, philosophical bent. He can bring home the feel of Africa and the mental impact of its vast, timeless landscape. The protagonist's problems from his life in the West, for example, seem in Africa ``mere pinpricks in the leathery hide of the cosmos.''
Cartwright also piques the reader's interest with barbed, philosophical summaries such as ``Love and madness are both the denial of limits.'' And he provokes reflection with descriptions like that of a naive, young missionary, with a ``face undisturbed by doubt, or life, or even the hot sun of Utah, like a piece of pottery that has not yet been fired.''
This book is stuffed with such witty epigrams, as well as exotic characterizations and finely honed set pieces of action. They often seem emphasized, however, at the expense of the novel's overall form, which remains amorphous and ragged. The whole of ``Interior'' is something less than the sum of its parts. Stark's graceless descriptions of old age in tribal communities risk bathos when narrated by young men who climb from helicopters or traipse into the jungle in search of lost treasure.
Cartwright's book also suffers from an overobvious relation to earlier literature. His droll and wry descriptions of leftover colonials and absurd, self-important African officials seem lifted straight out of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, or V.S. Naipaul. Moreover, continual, blatant allusions show an even greater debt to Conrad's ``Heart of Darkness,'' a masterpiece with which ``Interior'' will not bear comparison. In inviting such a contrast, the young novelist might better have heeded Flannery O'Connor's warning in the shadow of another literary great: ``I keep clear of Faulkner so my own little boat won't get swamped.''
Structurally, Cartwright's elaborate time labyrinth, where the reader wanders bewildered with the protagonist in his own blundering efforts to make sense of things, is confusing and contains too many dead ends. The inconclusive epilogue also keeps ``Interior'' from reaching the level of art to which Cartwright aspires.
The author's problems with structure, plotting, and allusion all signal that his writing is not yet under enough control for success in writing this kind of book. But as a talented, popular novelist's first effort at a work of higher literary art, ``Interior'' is impressive. And despite artistic flaws, it remains very entertaining reading.