By Gene Lyons
Updated February 04, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

At first glance it looks like a terrific idea. Every writer ought to try it. Heck, Congress should pass a law mandating that after a given number of books every American novelist be required to do exactly what John Updike has gone out and done on his own: learned some new tricks, set his 16th novel in a country and culture as foreign as Brazil. And no cheating, either. No tourists, no visiting soldiers or executives, no artsy expatriates. Indeed, no American characters at all. Now, that’d be real multiculturalism at work.

Any honest review, therefore, must begin by observing what an extraordinary work of imagining Updike has done. Far from the decaying industrial cities of eastern Pennsylvania and the more prosperous venues of suburban New England, where his previous works have been set, the novelist has found a brilliantly sunlit beach within walking distance of an appalling slum in Rio.

Indeed, Brazil begins in fairy-tale fashion. ”One day…years ago, when the military was in power in far-off Brasilia,” a poor boy named Tristao, with ”pure African blood, as pure as blood can be in Brazil,” was smitten with desire for a beautiful white maiden named Isabel. With the naive courage of a rich girl, Isabel flirts boldly with her street-urchin suitor and takes him home to her Uncle Donaciano’s apartment.

Since this is an Updike story, it’s not long before the infatuated couple have run off to industrial Sao Paulo and rented a room at a hot-pillow joint named the Hotel Amour, and Isabel has begun watching porn on the pay channel and inviting the bellhop in for threesomes.

Anyhow, what happens is that Uncle Donaciano and Isabel’s father send goons to break up the love-demented pair. But then Brazil turns into a kind of picaresque parable that becomes steadily less engaging the more imaginatively ingenious it becomes. As so often happens when Updike loses the thread in his lesser novels, the sheer gorgeous sound of words quite overwhelms sense until his metaphors become unintentionally funny. Extravagantly gifted with every literary skill except a sense of the ridiculous, he never knows when to quit. Fascinating at times, Brazil is a brave and commendable effort that falls somewhere short of success. B-