One Man's Story : How Ray fell in love, fell out of love and got on with his life : RAY HAD AN IDEA ABOUT LOVE, By Eddie Lewis (Simon & Schuster: $21; 240 pp.)

Robert Roper is the author most recently of "Cuervo Tales" (Houghton Mifflin)

This first novel about a modern man's romantic life weighs strangely in the mind, like some mysterious chunk of ore much heavier than it looks.

The language is straightforward, and the story it tells is familiar. A man in his early 30s (the eponymous Ray) bails out of his marriage. He leaves behind a perplexed, depressed wife and two young sons. In the 1950s the story of a man leaving a functional if deadening marriage might have played as an act of social rebellion, in the '60s as a grab for freedom and perpetual youth, in the '70s or '80s as an unsurprising example of male selfishness. Or if the book were called "Rayleen Had an Idea About Love," the breaking of marriage vows might seem an act of liberation--another blow against the beleaguered "patriarchy."

What Ray does, though, gains no meaning from its social context or from the history of male-female relations over the last few decades. This is a strictly moral and psychological story of divorce. As such, it feels narrow but appallingly true. Ray breaks free, not into wild good times but into ever more dire reckonings with his conscience and his masculine temperament. The novel has the motion of a whirlpool: Ray on the outer lip at the start descends concentrically toward a dark center, where he finally finds a sort of truth.

Ray's "idea about love" is that "it was like finding a bright coin on the sidewalk, that it was a special moment of fate. He thought it wrong, a perversity of nature, to pass it by." And despite the heartbreak he inflicts on himself and others, "he still, desperately, wanted love to be easy. And in some primal, confident place in himself, he knew that he was right." This primal confidence is what draws women to him, but it turns out to be wholly misconceived: the sexual self-belief of a man, offering hope and a sort of answer to life for a woman, fails to correspond at all with the actual difficulties of remaining married (let alone in love).

Ray recognizes that he has advertised himself as being "good for growth, good for health, good for life." But after he falls out of love with his wife, and when an ensuing relationship also fails, he feels like the seller of "a snake-oil product (who) had hung around town too long and now someone who had bought the product . . . was staring him down with the naked truth of it." In his marriage, he propped up a depressed woman: "His choice of tone had always been calculated to support her, encourage her, love her. . . . Long before he had ever met her, something had ambushed Betsy along the trail and stolen a part of her life . . . He had thought that he might provide some proper environment in which such stolen things could grow back."

Ray learns he isn't enough: "Before he had been the bright knight, and now . . . he had become the single greatest cause of pain and suffering in her life." With as much tenderness as he can, he tells Betsy that he doesn't love her anymore, and that he won't ever love her again; and this may be his first real act of kindness toward her. Similarly, he reclaims his sons (actually, he never loses connection with them). His simple decency and healthy hopefulness seem just right for a father, if not quite enough in a lover.

Set in Santa Fe, "Ray Had an Idea About Love" includes vivid descriptions of many secondary characters, and Ray himself emerges slowly from behind a deadpan mask of third-person narration. We learn that he went to college at Brown, that he had intense experiences as a young athlete ("He felt nostalgic for . . . the playing fields of life, where all his reactions were the right ones"), that sex has a spiritual meaning for him that his lovers often don't recognize. This may, indeed, be an era when men writers about love begin to reap the meager benefits of their marginality: Others, too (such as Robert Olen Butler, in the recent "They Whisper") have begun to speak of a certain "sex-spirituality," in terms long eschewed by more hairy chested writers as well as by contemporary feminists.

Just as the story of a woman's sexual and romantic journey was emblematic of an earlier era, a man's story--making no excuses for itself, utterly without special pleading--seems just about right for the present moment, when ideological categories are breaking down and the old paradoxes begin to reclaim our attention. Ray wants only to be happy, responsible and honest with himself, and this turns out to be a tall order indeed. If love conquers all, as the old saying goes, are we all defeated?

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