Richard Durgin, a stalled novelist, sits watching a football game on TV while wife Rachel--Rachel Isaacs, the very famous poet, new rage of all literary society--withdraws into the bathroom after punching-down a batch of bread dough. . . and kills herself by slitting her wrists. That's the opening scene here. Then, years later, Richard--twice since remarried, one more time a widower, living as a carpenter in India--is writing in detail, about his life and abortive career, to a young Berkeley biographer of Rachel's. What we get for the most part is Richard's self-absorption: son of a Pittsburgh carpenter, he goes to college at a small Kentucky school in the late Fifties; then it's on to the Iowa Writer's Workshop (a ""fame-factory' where everyone pores over the newest issues of literary quarterlies as if they were ""how-to"" manuals). And there he meets Rachel--who, daughter of a haughty, disappointed, German-JewishÃ‰migrÃ‰ filmmaker, grows up in Italy. By culture, then, Rachel is antipodal to Richard's American, optimistic, and ahistorical ambitiousness; she writes about the Holocaust, about private states as friable as bubbles. (""She'd just had a poem; all she needed was to write it."") And while Richard's disillusionment steadily mounts--from his childhood view of a Negro League ballgame in Pittsburgh to dimming hopes on Manhattan's hellishly intellectual Upper West Side--Rachel's constitutional lack of illusion keeps her flame alive. . . until its natural frailty finishes it off. Disappointingly, this new novel by the author of Tribal Justice never really gets a strong hold on the central Richard/Rachel antithesis: Richard is a touch too stagily charming in his candor, Rachel too amorphously off-stage. Yet if his portrait of a literary marriage of the American 1960s tends to crumble, Blaise is unsparing on the academic literary factories, strongly evocative in the sour views of intellectual New York--and readers attuned to the literary-world will find this a frequently compelling, sometimes stinging inside-view.