Some critics have long suspected that the "meta-fiction" experimentalists (those who erect a barricade of cold, ornate literary devices between story and reader) are really the least tough-minded writers around, that they often use parody and formalism to fend off--or cover up--the thin sentimentality at the heart of their work. For such critics, then, Barth's new novel will come as no surprise--because, in spite of an almost endearingly desperate attempt to trick it up with narrative hijinks, this is a tender, apparently autobiographical love story that often verges (with no sign of parody) on slurpy soap opera. Fenwick Turner, 50-year-old ex-CIA agent (he wrote an expose), is taking a sailboat-cruise vacation around Chesapeake Bay and beyond with young second-wife Susan--a Jewish literature prof on sabbatical; and the novel we're reading is the novel Fenwick is writing during the cruise. The narration constantly slides from first person ("we") to third. There are Fenwick/Susan debates on narrative techniques. (Endless jokes about "fieshbecks"--if and how to use them.) There are cutesy footnotes--plus the vision of a sea-monster. And there's a CIA subplot, wanly derivative yet not pointed enough for parody: Fenwick's brother and nephew have both disappeared on CIA missions; a mole's lurking somewhere; the CIA may now be out to eliminate Fenwick--or to pressure him into recruiting his geneticist son. But, while the literary games were central to other Barth fictions, here they're merely dressing for a conventional marriage/family novel: "We're at a fork in our channel. We've got to settle the question of having children." So there are flashbacks to Fenwick's first marriage, to the F/S courtship (he was first her "Uncle," since his brother sort-of-married Susan's part-Gypsy mother); there are visits with relatives on both sides (the book's best moments involve Susan's mother and grandmother); Susan toys with the idea of adultery ("She wants clandestine servicing. Anna K! Emma B! . . . All that shit, you know?"); she gets unintentionally pregnant and aborts secretly. And finally there's a treacle-with-sex upbeat ending--as the spouses agree to have children, revel in Fenwick's wonderful book ("our love will be in it, and our friendship too"), and sail off into "Happily ever after." Admittedly, this is not a successful book by either Barth-ian or old-fashioned standards: it's more often arch than funny, more often embarrassing than involving. But it's an intriguing, touching spectacle nonetheless--the avant-garde meets banal-romance--and it's certainly Barth's most accessible novel since The Sot-Weed Factor.