Imagine a fair-to-good novel by Kurt Vonnegut in his more socio-economic, Mr. Rosewater-ish vein. Then imagine that it's been scrambled, weighed down with self-conscious prose, and avant-garded up (Joycean run-ons, blank verse, skewed tenses and pronouns) by someone intent on making a literary impression. That, unfortunately, is the general effect of this artful but lifeless picaresque novel--which follows the crossing 1936 paths of a very young vagabond and a somewhat older failed-poet, both of whom love a tormented beauty and both of whom wind up under the wing of a great tycoon. Doctorow's on-and-off narrator is 18-year-old Joe Korzeniowski, who shakes off his working-class Paterson, N.J., childhood, heads for California as a hobo, but soon stops off to work as a carney roustabout, befriending Fanny the Fat Lady--a ""retarded whore freak"" who services hordes of men in swinish orgies. Meanwhile, we also hear about fat, drunken poet Warren Penfield from Ludlow, Colorado: his pattern of ""failed affections,"" his bizarre WW I heroism (semaphore-ing Wordsworth's ""Ode""), his Zen years in a Japanese monastery, his 1929 arrival at auto-magnate F. W. Bennett's Loon Lake estate in the Adirondacks--where Warren has lived ever since as ""resident poet"" (though his original intention was to kill Bennett). And in 1936 wandering Joe arrives at Loon Lake too: he catches sight of a beautiful woman riding a private railway car, follows her, is attacked by wild dogs, and wakes up in the care of Loon Lake's green-uniformed staff. (In a rare comic moment, Joe puts his name below Leopold of Belgium's in the posh guest book: ""Joe of Paterson. Splendid dogs. Swell company."") So now the poet and the hobo meet (Joe marvels at ""a life farcically set in the path of historical and natural disaster""); both love ""blazingly beautiful,"" up-from-poverty Clara (who is Bennett's mistress, of course); and soon Joe and Clara run off in one of Bennett's cars. But their escape west only brings them to a Bennett company town: Joe works in a Bennett factory and is union-ized by a ""cracker"" neighbor (really a company spy) while Clara--who ""fucked in a kind of lonely self-intensification""--is tempted back to the rich easy-life. And Joe himself, after complications when the spy is murdered (Joe loves-and-leaves the spy's child-bride widow), ends up back at Loon Lake, vows to rehabilitate vile exploiter Bennett (""I'm going to put the fucker where he belongs I swear on my Clara I swear Mr. Penfield I swear by the memory of the Fat Lady""). . . but merely becomes--as revealed in an epilogue--the totally corrupted heir to Loon Lake. A fable-like scenario, then, with capitalism's great hand corrupting or exploiting or destroying (poet Penfield flies off into oblivion with Bennett's aviatrix wife). And some of the telling is attractively fable-like too. But much of it reads like an academic exercise rife with self-indulgence: annotated poems (clever but very bad) by Penfield; sophomoric free-associations by Joe (""Commingling with me she becomes me/ Coming she is coming is she/ Coming she is a comrade of mine""); arbitrary disjunctions and time-warps, overwritten setpieces (the Fat Lady orgy), and dreadful, oh-wow-heavy pronouncements--""You are thinking it is a dream. It is no dream. It is the account in helpless linear translation of the unending love of our simultaneous but disynchronous lives."" Well, whatever it is and whatever its intermittent charms, it sorely lacks the very specific historical fuel that has energized Doctorow's best work (The Book of Daniel especially). And entertainment-seekers expecting another Ragtime are sure to be unhappily surprised.