FELLOW TRAVELERS by Alex Beam (St. Martin's Press: $17.95; 320 pp.).

This first novel by a former Moscow correspondent tries with only limited success to mix a caustic sense of humor with a sensitive, sympathetic look on how ordinary Soviet citizens cope with the abominations of the system. It tells the story of Nick Perkins, a caption writer in New York for a trashy magazine that seeks to polish its image by opening a Moscow bureau.

Perkins is chosen for the assignment by the most improbable editor who ever blue-penciled a reporter's copy, his only qualification being the smattering of Russian he learned while in the Army. Perkins is appalled at the assignment. It means the loss of his capitalist creature comforts and the breakup of a love affair. But once in Moscow, he finds solace in the arms of a beautiful "clerk" with the British Embassy whose work is so secret that the reader is never told what it is. His bitterness melts in the mutual affection that develops between him and a Russian family that initiates him into the mysteries of Soviet life.

The novel stumbles in the love scenes. Much of the dialogue is stilted and forced, and there are outbursts of florid writing. But author Alex Beam redeems the book with his insights into the daily routine of ordinary Muscovites--the struggle against consumer shortages, the red tape, the lack of privacy of people jammed into tiny apartments in a land of vast open spaces. Like many foreigners, Beam's hero is awed and enraptured by the emptiness of the Soviet Union beyond the Moscow city limits. And his attempts at humor are most successful in the letters from America that Beam's emigres sent home. These reveal the bewildering mixture of awe and delight that the emigres find in the freedoms and the material benefits of the New World and their homesickness for accustomed rituals and friends left behind in the old.

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