Brassed off but still unbowed

DAVID STOREY'S characters have always been up against it. The Rugby League footballer treated like a performing animal (This Sporting Life), the miner's daughter who defies her family by living with a married man (Flight Into Camden); typically, they are caught between opposing forces and wounded in the conflict.

These were his debut novels, both published in 1960. His plays took up the theme. "It's not looking over the edge," complains Allott, the all- or-nothing artist in Life Class; "It's the staying there that worries me".

The central figure in A Serious Man has been right over the edge into breakdown. This dramatic account of a struggle to win back freedom is the novelist's return to fiction after 14 years and as powerful as anything he has written.

Never short on irony, Storey describes 64-year-old Richard Fenchurch, who has given away most of his money and somehow slipped his reputation as a serious writer, as coming on like King Lear. He has endured madness and its attendant relocations: "Two and a half years in Boady Hall (and the same again at the North London Hospital) have not done me, on the whole, a lot of good." Now he disdains lithium and rejects Professor Maidstone's diagnosis: "You're written out." His former wife, Bea, intervenes and rallies their children; Fenchurch finds himself in a car journeying back from London to the north, driven by his exasperated daughter Etty.

In some ways the plot is a reversal of the earlier novels. The prodigal father returns, alarming those strangers encountered at the bus stop, in the shop, puzzling his small grandchildren when he comes down in the morning naked. The mining community he once knew has lost its integrity now that the pits are closed. "Drugs are the main industry round here," says Mrs Otterman, Etty's cleaning lady, who is somewhat contemptuous of "Mrs Stott's dotty Dad".

His son-in-law, a barrister, has taken on Ardley Hall, the big house overlooking the colliery where Fenchurch courted the privileged Bea and was accepted by her parents.

His daughter attacks his lack of political engagement: "It's why those theorists - and not theorists only! - despise your work... where they might have been looking for an appetite for change - even revolution - they never find it."

Fenchurch marshals his defence. Art is the only politics with any reality for him: revelation rather than revolution. He wanders through the landscape he has tried to capture so many times in words and in paint, remembering the passion he felt years back for a woman with lightly-freckled skin, green-irised eyes, "a robust, slim-waisted, high-breasted figure".

This is his muse - tragically, not the girl he married but her mother, Isabella. The house and its grounds are full of memories of their embraces, the lovers increasingly reckless, the deceived husband and child left to their own company on any excuse. Was the affair tacitly condoned? At any moment, it could have been discovered. Perhaps Bea, now with another man, has taken revenge in her own time.

Such strong themes are well served by the pared-down prose, as characteristic as Pinter's silences. The narrative moves easily from sharply comic exchanges to the eroticism of memory and the precise delineation of nature. D H Lawrence has sometimes been cited as an influence on Storey; Fenchurch shrugs off any kinship but his observation of a beech tree, as "an arthritic articulation of ageing wood", and of a fig tree ,"its sinuous grey branches masked by the dark green plates of its leaves", suggest the comparison is valid.

London theatre in the boom years of the Sixties and the Seventies provides another dimension to this splendid, many-layered novel. Hero of Our Time, Fenchurch's debut, is put on by one Liam O'Donnell - not a million miles from Lindsay Anderson, who directed so much of the author's innovative theatre work (The Contractor, In Celebration, Home). An easily-identifiable actor and a successful media man make cameo appearances. The story of Vivienne, whose suicide precipitates the crisis of the book, sadly echoes the lives of Rachel Roberts and Jill Bennett.

As for Fenchurch, back in the south, his daughters dealt with, his room full of canvas and sheets of paper, one or two tricks still up his sleeve - he has achieved a measure of reconciliation with his past. Time for his creator (who won the Booker Prize in 1976 for Saville) to be read again, and by a new generation.

Judy Cooke