If this brilliant, crafty novel were an animal, it would surely be a puzzled dog, turning its head this way and that in pursuit of an elusive noise. Doggedness is virtue here. Hamilton Stark is the fictional name given to a man named A., a friend of the narrator, and Hamilton Stark is the book that the narrator has put together because a ""real"" novel-in-progress about A. is proving to be too difficult, too frightening to write. So who is A.? A New Hampshire pipefitter, father of one daughter and husband of five wives, he is--at least on the surface of things--a slob, given to ""eccentric violence and destructive manipulation, betrayal, disloyalty, and deceit."" A ""true churl"" in his independence and cruelty. A mean drunk. An ungrateful son (he maneuvers his aged mother out of her house--thus honoring ""her need to be injured""--and takes it over for his wife and himself). And a hurtful father (he tells his daughter at her college graduation that he's only come to hear Ezra Taft Benson deliver the commencement address). A bad man, in other words--at the very least, a dark one. But to the narrator, a bookish, impressionable, possibly ridiculous intellectual, Hamilton is ""the only human being I have known who did not seem to exist solely through his disembodied voice,"" a supreme ironist ""praising a thing by condemning it and condemning a thing by praising it."" And the more we get to know of Hamilton--through an anthology of hearsay reports from his ex-wives, his daughter, townspeople (we never really see the man himself)--the more beguiling he does become. But the very variety of human injury and confusion he leaves in his wake is what clinches our fascination. All we finally and firmly know about Hamilton is that we come to dread him--and toward this end Banks' dramatic sense, his feel for paradox, and his hypnotic, reticent style rarely falter. Don't let the metafictional techniques--the novel-in-a-novel, the ambiguous narrative--turn you off; they seem almost invented for this book, and Hamilton rises in the mind as mysteriously compelling as any murderer in a whodunit. No mean feat: to write a truly lean philosophical novel (only the geological second chapter is fatty) while at the same time battening us to every paragraph with a fine feel for suspense. But in this superbly tuned and open-pored book, that's exactly what Banks has done.