In Wharton's two best novels, Birdy and Dad, a trapdoor seems to open about halfway through--with the reader suddenly dropped to a startling plane of reality, something very different from the conventional reality suggested by the homely, casual surface tone. In Wharton's unimpressive third novel, however, A Midnight Clear, that trap-door effect seemed to be infinitely deferred, then never happened at all. And here the effect is attempted, but halfheartedly, making this a disappointing book, though far superior to A Midnight Clear. Scumbler is the narrator, an expatriate American painter living in Paris with his wife and whichever of his five children aren't currently in college in California. Scumbler is a "nester" ("slumlord," he admits, would be another way to term it)--fixing up dismal Parisian properties, then renting them out to other artists or to students, occasionally using them himself for studio-space or storage. His paintings don't bring in much money. But Scumbler is property-rich and enjoys his life: the infrequent windfall, his collection of clocks, riding his motorcycle, painting in the streets while flirting with the many women who talk to him. He's a loping, attractive character, vain and impetuous but also quite level in most of the important ways, faithful to family and to art. He believes in the subjective ("true surrealism"); he entertains classically crackpot ideas gracefully, wanting 'to be unhitched from my particular little niche in sequential time and move easily along the boards of continuous time"; he writes small poems so awful they're charming. ("WILLFUL, LAST-DITCH WANDERINGS,/UNFILLED PROMISES LIE HEAVY IN MY SOUL,/BRAIN-FILLED EYES NOT SEEING, NOR KNOWING/THE BLUE OF CLEAR AND CLOUDLESS SKIES.") And, in its low-key way, this is one of the best pictures in contemporary fiction of an unfashionable, probably mediocre, everyday artist. Then, however, comes that trap-door effect, about midway through: Scumbler does a self-portrait ("body with a brain seeing a brain through a body")--and the painted image of himself becomes him, leaves him only a body, collapsed on the floor. But this experience is not repeated; nor is it really developed except in ever fainter resonance--with autobiographical clues (Scumbler is the grown-up Birdy) that Wharton seems ambivalent and/or lazy about providing. Thus, the novel's immanent eerieness remains tantalizingly out-of-reach, with glimmers only for alert Wharton devotees. And the result is, for the most part, no more nor less than a genial, flabby self-portrait of the artist/writer--heavy on set-pieces of middle-aged bohemian apprehension and aw-shucks equability, evocative and often-appealing, but without narrative shape or depth.