Newcomer Maxwell takes the preposterous idea of Richard Nixon and Raymond Carver meeting on the California seashore and becoming fast friends. And then, in a series of perfectly graceful short chapters, he spins the purest gold from it. When they bump into each other after walking ``a couple hundred miles,'' one north and one south, Carver and Nixon start up like just plain folks (`` `My name's Dick,' is all he says''). But then right away, in his perfect, unflappable, pitch-perfect dialogue, Maxwell introduces the bite: `` `How's the wife?' Ray asks. `Still in the hospital,' Dick tells him. . . . `I'm still dying,' Rays says with an odd Buddha smirk on his lips. `I thought so,' says Dick. `You've got that look about you.' '' Tosses back Ray: `` `You should know.' '' Maxwell's tone--impartial, objective, observant, humane: in a word, Chaucerian--stands him in such good stead that he can tell the rags-to-riches story of each man without an iota of sentimentality or one false laugh; can make Carver an interesting character without a hint of idolization; and can-- wonder of wonders--even make us sympathize with the vile, vulgar, obsessive Nixon. The miserable childhoods of each--poverty, tyrannical fathers, suffering mothers--allow for a showcasing of Maxwell's deft hand and sharp eye, but the same is no less true when Nixon and Carver (just imagine) go fishing together, play poker, and talk (and talk and talk) about sex, or when Nixon calls Carver long-distance late at night when he needs comfort from life's sorrows, as, for example, when Pat has her stroke. The richness of detail never once slackens (Maxwell actually provides a bibliography), and (just as in Chaucer) the humor never once runs away with the humanity: not even when Nixon in adolescence once ``fucked a large green piece of farm equipment,'' or when, younger, ``he used to let himself dream of bluebirds fluttering out of his mother's asshole.'' A marvel of restraint, color, and life.