WALES' WORK by Robert Walshe (Ticknor & Fields: $16.95). Poetry editor Robert Racine, literary executor of the late Wallace Wales, a prominent London publisher, sits in silent and solitary communion with him, then watches with disbelieving eyes as his dead employer rises from the coffin and walks out of the room. Mysteriously delivered messages written in the publisher's hand soon arrive, commanding Racine to follow a deception-strewn trail through Europe. At each station, he finds that Wales--dead to the world at large--had just been there. This whimsical situation frames Robert Walshe's ambitious first novel, a word-drunk tour de force in which he digresses eruditely on such diverse subjects as the tyranny of the printed page, Greek etymology, the sublimity of tending one's own garden, oral poetry and the possibility of making love astride a cantering horse. Racine tells the story via letters to a writer friend who knows the publishing house's cast of characters, as we do not. It takes 50 pages of close reading to get a fix on who is who and how the interrelationships function. While such an epistolary technique affords opportunities to be literarily allusive, to compose witty epigrams and to footnote with abandon, a basic incongruity of structure ensues. The intriguing idea of "seeing (one's self) through the editorial lenses of another man's mind" is diluted by a novel-length black-comedy chase that ultimately leads to nowhere. Walshe is a gifted writer who has much to say about the brave new world we have made at the expense of jettisoning older, important values. "Wales' Work," however, its bravura style and thought-provoking content notwithstanding, adds up to less than the sum of its clever parts.