In a perfectly spiced banquet of drollery, poise, and quiet wit, Stem (Golk, Other Men's Daughters, Natural Shocks) brings us a touching novel of fatherhood: a father, in his own mid-life survey of the damages and promises, worries about his young-adult children, fearful that in raising them he does them more harm than good. Cyrus Riemer, father of four, and divorced for 12 years (but still with a hundred emotional and protective ties to his wife, and to the gumbo-rich memories of their child-rearing years), looks on as his family goes into the final stages of its dispersal, an event symbolized by the children's no longer coming home for Christmas. ""I've always thought I was a loved father,"" says Cyrus, ""as I am--on the whole--a loving one."" He has been a nurturing and ambitious one as well. The son of an uneducated butcher on Manhattan's West Side, he has gone to college, read most of Western literature, and become, in Chicago, the editor of Riemer's Newsletter, a journal of science for laymen. As earnest counselor to his own children, though (""We've had great quotes from you,"" says Jenny, in anger, ""one for every mosquito bite""), he fears how he may have failed to give them a sense of the wonder of life, in fact may have embittered them. Jenny has written a book on dominating fathers in literature; Ben has written one on fetal psychology (The Need to Hurt); Livy works for the FBI; and Jack, the oldest, is simply on the skids, intelligent, unemployed, and aimless. ""All I see is a life formed around a wound,"" Cyrus laments of Jack, ""and don't think I haven't wondered if I'm the one who inflicted it."" At book's end, though, things may be on the turnaround. Jack finally becomes a TV writer--but of a series in which ""the hero's father [is] an Addled Intellectual whose misapprehension of the world triggers the trouble which his son, the detective, resolves."" And as for the Addled Intellectual himself? It's to be fatherhood another time around, as his dear mistress Emma gives birth to baby George. The strains of Bellow, De Vries, and Elkin may be detected in the foundation here, but Stern shows himself master builder on his own of a complex, comic novel that touches truth and heart repeatedly, offering up plums of sheer loveliness to boot. Fine, affirming fiction, though unflinching; in a class of its own.