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LITTLE MASTERS By Damien Wilkins, Henry Holt: 372 pp., $25

June 29, 1997|RICHARD EDER

In the Arrivals hall, after completing a long and disorienting flight, you are allowed briefly to entertain the question "What is life?" before life barrels through from Baggage Claim and claims you.

The New Zealand novelist Damien Wilkins floats half a dozen antipodean characters halfway around the world to raise this perennial mirage of a question. If they answer it, it is through their inability to do so. As the six blind men describing an elephant (it's a rope, a spear, a wall and so on, depending on which part they get hold of): Each is right if there is no such thing as an elephant.

Wilkins' New Zealanders and Australians pursue their various courses in and around London, no differently than another dozen or so characters they are involved with. Their bathwater drains down the same clockwise spiral. Still, a nagging awareness that elsewhere is a world where it drains counterclockwise allows the author to place them at a slight angle, as unconscious questioners and unsettlers.

None of Wilkins' characters, antipodean or otherwise, have much weight, though most of them own quirky personalities. They come together and drift apart, partly against their will, as if dematerializing. Life offers little in the way of a ground and even less in the way of intimacy. Comically active or comically passive, each is unsure that the others exist or that he or she does.

The closest thing to a central figure in a novel whose characters flare and fade is Adrian. He is the son of Polish Catholics who immigrated to New Zealand, where the father became a prosperous builder. Hesitant and uncertain, Adrian finds his first real passion when an estranged girlfriend dies, leaving behind their little boy, Daniel. Adrian wins custody from the child's maternal grandparents and, seeking resolution for an irresolute life, takes Daniel to London.

Here he drifts among a whole galaxy of characters whose interactions, comic, hostile and often mysteriously subliminal, spin a cosmology as frail and entangling as a spider web. Each character and encounter is an incipient point of departure that gives way to other points of departure. Each dazzles for a bit, seemingly on the point of becoming a main route; each diminishes or disappears partway along. Disconnected bits are sandwiched in: a radio play written by a character's mother, the transcript of a psychoanalytic session with a patient who does not otherwise appear. It is a "Canterbury Tales" without a Canterbury.

Adrian's cousin, Stefan, jealous, hypersensitive and a sketch of comic pain, tries to set himself up as Adrian's and Daniel's guide and protector. Adrian moves in, instead, with David and Catherine, ex-hippie New Zealanders who squat in a derelict building and whose mutual attachment is dissolving into mutual loathing.

Adrian enters Daniel in a Catholic school; his interview with the principal, an up-to-date nun, is a wonderful display of mutual misdirection. He gets a job working for Tim, a prosperous, hilariously self-centered publisher of terrible books.

Adrian's arrival in London converges with the arrival of another New Zealander. Emily, studying in the United States and working as a nanny for a divorced American woman lawyer, stops off on her way to deliver Michaela, her poisonous 8-year-old charge, to the girl's father in Germany. As irresolute and perplexed as Adrian, Emily hopes for a rendezvous with her blithely egoistic Spanish lover, Xavier, but he stands her up.

She does meet Sarah, a New Zealand schoolmate working with growing sourness as a nanny for Tim, his Australian wife, Jilly, and their three children. Sarah invites Emily and Michaela for a weekend at her employers' country place; at the same time, Tim invites Adrian and Daniel. They crowd into Tim's automobile, all these fretful strivings and half-fledged passions. Also two children sleeping soundly on laps. "A sleeping child," Tim reflects driving through the Somerset night, "is an insect bite that doesn't itch."

It is one of many perfect sentences in "Little Masters," a novel that enchants and irritates. Wilkins writes whole sequences of scenes that are by turns comic, tender and achingly inspired. There is Tim, the genial self-centered lord of his publishing company, sardonically indulged by his two titled young women assistants and grabbing the phone to bark out details about his sensitive bowels to the New York publishers he plans to visit. There is Tim at home: awkward, unsure in dealing with Jilly, his high-strung unhappy wife, and weeping at the death of his dog.

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