Ireland's Banville (Ghosts, 1993, etc.) is deservedly known as an inventive stylist and erudite novelist. His plots, though, and -- as in this case -- his language sometimes relish ambiguity and richness over the simpler pull of narrative. Banville introduces us to Morrow, a clerkish, middle-age type straight out of T.S. Eliot or Magritte. Encumbered with a chain-smoking, dying aunt and a considerable talent for wallowing in his own funks -- and in his own troubled past -- Morrow falls in with a band of Irish gangsters who want him to verify the authenticity of a cache of paintings. Whether the paintings (all seem to be valuable works by legendary Italian and Dutch masters) are hot is anybody's guess, since Morrow, during the course of his examination of the pieces, seems capable only of frothing over them while associating their subject matter with his new girlfriend, a woman identified only as "A." This name, cribbed from Kafka and Hawthorne, could be the sort of thing, paired with the unrelenting exploitation of Ruskin's pathetic fallacy, that makes you lose patience with Banville's book. But he keeps you hooked, partly with his luminous writing, partly by allowing a scrumptious lowlife character to slope onstage at just the right moment. Morrow's involvement with A. develops an increasingly kinky edge, featuring mild S&M and lurid spectatorship, as does Banville's attitude itself toward his sad-sack incompetent. Even so, what fascinates about this fairly vicious and quite lovely novel is Banville's combination of contempt and affection for Morrow's type: those who, if it weren't for art, would probably rather not exist, but soldier on anyway in the service of their delicate passions. The foolhardy aesthete as hero? Why not? Even if Banville's precious prose may make you pull your hair out in hanks, there's no disputing his claim to this unique fictional territory.