FICTION : DREAMS OF AN AVERAGE MAN by Dyan Sheldon (Crown: $15.95).

In this novel, Sheldon scrutinizes three befuddled New Yorkers who spend a summer groping for deliverance from the torpor and gloom suffusing their lives. For 40-year-old Tony Rivera, daily existence has been a morass of "detours and defeats" that leave him morose, perplexed and pessimistic. His melancholia is so pervasive that Tony envisions Death personified affably greeting him from aboard a bus. Even playing with a plastic duck in the bathtub brings him little joy. Sandy, Tony's 30-year-old wife, unhappily contends with their marriage's disintegration and the loss of her lover, dentist Skip Ellis, who jilts Sandy for her friend, Maggie Kelly. Once an indefatigable social activist, Sandy is now thoroughly disgruntled, so she temporarily leaves Tony. Fortunately, Maggie retains some optimism despite the reversals she has endured. After restlessly traveling the world, Maggie must finally decide whether she can find stability with Skip, or by intrepidly starting her life anew without him. Sheldon's tale of urbanites enmeshed in anxiety and confusion is certainly timely, and she movingly evokes her characters' discontent. Nevertheless, the omniscient narrator's long-winded intrusions, a scanty plot and a dearth of insights ultimately makes this an unsatisfying, somewhat tedious novel.

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