SOMEHOW in this at times beautifully written and conceived novel, a critical, purely literary kind of skill and judgment is oddly missing. Plain and simple, what is missing in ``The Bingo Palace'' is two main characters who interact with each other believably and resonantly in their spiritual and cultural confusion.
This contemporary story, set in Chippewa land in Minnesota by acclaimed novelist Louise Erdrich, still has range and power, enough so that her other skills and insights bring impact to the warp and woof of her novel. Subplots rooted in heritage and family are deftly woven, even brilliantly told to elbow out the main characters in revealing subtleties and mysteries of Indian ways.
Erdrich introduced Lipsha Morrissey in her book, ``Love Medicine.'' Now he returns, a young Chippewa male chasing Shawnee Ray, a beautiful young woman with a baby.
But Erdrich uncharacteristically clogs her writing about their attitudes and inner monologues with much melodrama. Unrelieved passionate longing - ``love is hard, loneliness a sure bet,'' says Morrissey achingly - strains the reasoning behind the writing. When the carriers of the heart of a novel ring goofy, the resulting concentric circles become harder to believe.
When Morrissey asks Ray to marry him, she responds, ``Get real,'' the best known cliche of the 1990s. I winced, not because it was a cliche, but because it enfeebled reason. At one point Morrissey worships Ray's ankles. Later, he falls to his knees clasping her knees. The reader is never sure if this is intended as humor (in which case it is seldom funny) or over-written emotion.
The result, in a structural sense, is a low-level emotional wandering or uneveness in the novel. At times Erdrich's voice is as sure as any novelist writing today, particularly when she is writing about older women and their Indian past. The rest of the characters in this novel move logically toward the surprising ending. But Morrissey and Ray are in an emotional bath, unbelievably foamy as a result of two improbable sexual encounters.
Morrissey, after showing some promise in his life, has stumbled back to the reservation and is dazzled by Ray, ``the best of our past, our present, our hope of a future,'' he says at the beginning of the book.
This is virtually his last lucid observation about her as he battles with the older, more-experienced Lyman Lamartine, the father of Ray's baby, to win Ray.
Lamartine owns a Quonset-hut bingo palace, the leitmotif of the novel as ``luck'' moves in and out of many lives. Morrissey wins a new van by playing bingo. On a trip to Reno, Lamartine loses tribal money and then concocts a scheme to get it back. Morrissey's dead mother returns and leaves him bingo cards.
What still bothers Morrissey, and seems to drive his desire to connect with Ray, is the story he was told that his mother had put him in a gunnysack with rocks and dropped him in a pond. He refuses to believe his mother tried to kill him.
Not until the end of the story, after a prison escape, does Morrissey come to grips with what his mother did. Befitting the preceding tale of emotional disconnectedness, and the roll of chance, Morrissey huddles in a snowbound car, believing finally in the treachery of life, even though his last act is profoundly maternal. ``And people, they'll leave you, sure,'' he thinks. ``There's no return to what was and no way back. There's just emptiness all around, and you in it....''