Imaginary dialogue. . . . Novelist to publisher: ""Oh yeah? Well, let's see you do better!"" Publisher to novelist: ""You're on."" So, if for no other reason than the fact that he's put himself right on the line, publishing pasha Jovanovich deserves some credit. There aren't, unfortunately, too many other reasons forthcoming. Narrated in the first person by ""Big"" John Sirovich, college-educated son of a Serbian coal-miner in the West, the story moves John along a goldenly feckless boulevard of time predating Pearl Harbor, dropping him off first to work in an island resort hotel off San Diego, then for a romance with a young married woman, then as a tutor to a movie star's lonely son (plus a job as screenwriter for RKO). He's finally deposited in a Navy uniform--ready for the big fight. In Jovanovich's fictional world, no one speaks without import--there's no idle chatter--and no one's words are more important than Big John's: about colleges, hobos, poker (""I never bet on statistical odds except for simple ones that attach to the chances of drawing a third card to a pair or filling an open-ended flush or straight. . .""), correct English (""It was lonely.""/ ""No,"" I said, ""it was empty. You were lonely""), and the state of the culture in general, Jovanovich's descriptive powers are good, better about tangibles like buildings than about atmospheres (""The clear air was hot and literal""). The drive behind the book, however, is Big John's cocksureness, which, in an autobiographical mode, is hard to distinguish from narcissism and can be somewhat off-putting. But if you're looking for opinions and attitudes--astringent, never wobbly, occasionally provocative--they're here by the bushel.