For all its intelligence and wit, Stephen Dobyns' novel about the massive 1960 Chilean earthquake is easier to admire than to enjoy. The prolific Dobyns an accomplished poet as well as the author of a justly praised series of detective novels set in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. strains mightily to turn the disaster into a metaphor for the arbitrariness of fate and the fickleness of human memory. Unfortunately, the effort shows, making the novel far too didactic to carry much conviction as fiction.
As a poet, one of Dobyns' strong points is his edgy treatment of nature, that two-faced inspiration of so much sentimental verse. Here, however, not a raindrop falls but that it exhibits Thematic Significance: ''The rain came as a blessing,'' we're told, ''because it helped put out the fires still burning in town. Although in Puerto Montt, as we learned later, it caused a terrible mud slide and many people were killed.'' A couple of hundred pages of being nudged in the ribs like that, and most readers will want to seek the comfort of a Dobyns detective novel, where overt rather than covert philosophizing is part of the fun. B