After the grandiose, obsessive longueurs of Ancient Evenings (1983), most readers will find the opening chapter of this new Mailer novel a relief--since it seems to promise the most familiar, controlled sort of fiction. The narrator is Timothy Madden, a 40-ish writer living in Provincetown, Mass., who's been going through hell for the past 24 days, ever since his wife Patty Lareine ran off "with a black stud of her choice." Madden ponders his nicotine addiction, his past amours, Patty Lareine's lurid tendencies, the Provincetown milieu; his musings are "introspective, long-moldering, mournful"--and conventional. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that Mailer is engaged in something of an anything-goes improvisation--as Madden stumbles into a murky grab-bag of black-comedy and sexual/existentialist melodrama, teeming with echoes (send-ups?) of other writers. The prose-style, blending vernacular and limpid poetics, often seems to be a parody of Updike. (It comes as no surprise, about halfway through, that Madden has written an essay on Updike's style: "He has a rare talent. Yet it irks me.") The plot recalls Bellow, Thomas Berger, and many others: Madden gets drunk, meets a flashy couple from California at a bar; he wakes up semi-amnesiac the next morning, with a tattoo; he soon discovers a decapitated woman's head in his marijuana patch (does it belong to Patty Lareine--or the woman from California?); eventually there are corpses everywhere, two severed heads, revelations about rampant adultery and real-estate greed; and all the major figures from Madden's past (his father, his old flame Laurel, Patty Lareine's kinky ex-husband) converge coincidentally. Meanwhile, narrator Madden--part suspect, part sleuth--is haunted, a la John Gardner's Mickelsson's Ghosts, by the voices of 19th-century whores. But the final chapters return to preoccupations that are pure Mailer: violence and homosexuality as challenges to being a tough guy--with two gay suicides, oral/anal graphics, and Madden's confession to his macho Irish father. ("You think I feel like a man most of the time? I don't.") Throughout, there are chunks of great talent on display--in the sly play of language, in the raunchy humor, in the Provincetown scenery and the sudden flashes of raw, genuine feeling. And this short, lively novel will certainly be read all the way through in a way that Ancient Evenings wasn't. But it's a thin, disappointing potpourri overall--seemingly made up as it goes along, with about equal portions of inspiration and self-indulgence.