A FREE LIFE, by Ha Jin, Pantheon Books, 660 pages, $26

Ha Jin, winner of a National Book Award, a PEN/Faulkner Award and a Flannery O'Connor Award, has a new novel. "A Free Life" tells the story of a Chinese man named Nan, who came to study in the United States in the mid-1980s. After the deaths of the students in Tiananmen Square, Nan knows he can never go home.

So he brings his wife to America, and eventually they are able to bring their son, at last reunited and ready to start their free life as a family. But what is a "free life" anyway?

In his dry and understated style, Ha Jin tells their story. The reader feels alternately annoyed by and afraid for the protagonist, Nan. He drops out of college and he wants to be a poet and he doesn't love his wife. The reader realizes (and to be fair, Nan does, too) that this immigrant does not have the luxury of becoming an artist or getting a divorce. He can't run a restaurant without his wife's help. He can't dabble in poetry in his spare time, because he doesn't have any spare time.

Ha Jin describes Nan's life in a series of declarative sentences:

"Recently Nan had reorganized the service at the Gold Wok, which now offered a lunch buffet on weekdays and the regular menu at dinner. This change improved the business considerably. A lot of people working in the area would come in for lunch, which consisted of two soups, four appetizers, and ten dishes, all for $4.75. Nan and Pingping would arrive at work before eight a.m. and cook the food and get everything ready by eleven-thirty. After they closed up at night, he'd stay a little longer preparing the meat and vegetables for the following day."

Ha Jin's prose is alluringly simple. It would be perfect, actually, except that Nan's accent gets in the way.

In the first chapter Nan says, "Do you have anozzer way to check zat?" By the last chapter his accent has lessened but still turns up, as in, "Buy yourself a cahp of coffee and a donut." You find yourself slowing over these sentences, sounding out the strange spellings.

There has to be a better way for Ha Jin to keep reminding us that Nan is not yet American, even as it becomes harder for Nan to imagine himself ever living in China again.

What does work well in this novel is Nan's sense of alienation. He can't connect with his son. He can't write a poem. He can't claim a religion — or find any method, actually, to become part of the larger community. His free life is kind of lonely.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com