ADAM THE KING, by Jeffrey Lewis, Other Press, 215 pages, $21.95

Jeffrey Lewis, sometime novelist and television scriptwriter, most noted for "Hill Street Blues," has fashioned the fourth in what he calls a quartet of novels about the money-mad 1990s.

His main character is Adam Bloch, a quirky billionaire in his 50s, who marries Maisie Maclaren in a smashing, expensive event in Clement's Cove, a coastal Maine village.

The community is an awkward mix of the wealthy who maintain summer homes and those year-rounders who live in modest homes and nurture traditional working-class backgrounds.

Bloch is a shy, awkward sort of man who lives with a dark secret and feels the need for atonement. That step is connected with Maisie, a woman with two adopted daughters, who suffers from Hodgkin's disease.

Bloch buys a $3 million piece of land and has a mansion built that defies the imagination of the hometown folk, yet he desperately wants to fit in. Since Maisie has been weakened by Hodgkin's disease, he wants to build a small lap pool because the ocean is too cold for her.

But Bloch's already expansive building plans leave no room for such a small diversion, so he tries to buy a tiny piece of land belonging to Verna Hubbard, a working woman who lives in a small trailer.

Predictably, Verna refuses to sell, even when she is offered more than $2 million. This disagreement over a tiny stretch of land grows into an even more expensive and ridiculous tragedy.

The author's writing style is reminiscent of television writing — simplistic, folksy, cliche-ridden and often way over the top. The author tries to imitate the best of satirical writers, but a Mark Twain or a Garrison Keillor he is not.

A quarter of the way into the book it becomes obvious where all this is leading, which takes most of the wind out of the sails. The forced comical mix with low tragedy doesn't work. The dialogue is meant to be funny without ever quite succeeding:

"What she said to him once, what he said to her: 'You're the most awkward, funny, ill-at-ease, quiet, confused, dopey, clueless, smart one I've met yet.'

"'What does "one" mean?'

"'I don't know. I'm not sure. I'm just trying to say thank you."'

In one short chapter, Lewis describes a dream Maisie has about a neighbor, Roy, working in her garden. He tells her that "This disease won't grow in this soil." She is confused and asks him to clarify.

"Is there something wrong with the soil?" But when she looks closer she sees nothing wrong, except that Roy smells like sweat and fertilizer.

"She looks down at the soil and feels his fingers on her chin, lifting her face until she can see his gappy, happy, friendly smile, his hungry smile, his floppy, dirty, happy, hungry hair, and he says, 'Sorry, ma'am, but my breath smells like fertilizer,' and then his rough lips kiss hers.

"A dream, of course, that she might not have had. But I believe she did. Some version of it, anyway."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com