Like An Elevator, `Intuitionist' Offers A Smooth Ride, With Just A Few Bumps

------------------------------- "The Intuitionist" By Colson Whitehead Anchor Books/Doubleday, $19.95 -------------------------------

Colson Whitehead's "The Intuitionist" is an impressive debut novel with mythic dimensions. It opens with a captivating scenario and quickly carries along with an enchanting noirish story line.

Lila Mae Watson is a pacesetter. She is the first female black elevator inspector in an unnamed metropolis which is "not an old money city or a new money city but the most famous city in the world." Whitehead's imaginary world divides elevator inspectors into two camps - Empiricists (traditionalists who rely on standard inspection practices) and Intuitionists (non-Euclidean thinkers who communicate with the elevator on a "nonmaterial basis"). Lila Mae is the Intuitionist of the title. She pushes the envelope, separating the "elevator from (its) elevatorness."

But Lila Mae is in trouble. The day after she approves an elevator in the 45-story Fannie Briggs Memorial Building, one of the "boxes on a rope in a pit" takes an improbable freefall. Fortunately, there were no passengers aboard. Unfortunately, Lila Mae has to take the fall for the catastrophic accident. She knows she is not responsible for the failure of the "vertical transport." In order to save her reputation and the reputation of other Intuitionists (whose accuracy rate is 10 percent higher than that of the Empiricists), she needs to find out who is responsible. Her investigation is at the core of this engaging novel.

Whitehead's gift is the uncanny ability to effectively create an intriguing otherworldliness within the reaches of the real world. Lila Mae learned her trade at a former health spa for "rich neurasthenic women from the Northeast's larger cities" that became the Institute for Vertical Transport. While there, she heard whispers of a legendary "black box," the perfect elevator of the future that could reinvent the modern metropolis and become the soul of the city. Empiricists and Intuitionists are both vying to find evidence of this "stepping stone to Heaven."

Lila Mae suspects political subterfuge is behind the incident at Fannie Briggs. It is an election year for the Elevator Guild. The current Guild Chair is an Empiricist; his opponent, an Intuitionist. If the current Chair can ruin Lila Mae's position, he can ensure his re-election and besmirch future Intuitionists.

As Whitehead unravels the detective elements of the novel, he also facilely incorporates racist issues into his narrative. Lila Mae faces prejudice from her first foot in the door of the Institute. No one lets her forget her color. Even the first black elevator inspector, a rebel Lila Mae suspects as one of the culprits, reminds her that she wouldn't have her job if it hadn't been for him.

Other unforgettable characters inhabit Whitehead's breathtaking environment. Ben Urich is a muckracking journalist who suffers a number of broken fingers at the hands of corporate thugs; Johnny Shush orchestrates a web of mobsters; an Empiricist friend, Chuck, offers comic relief by sharing the "tread secrets" of escalators.

If there is any weakness to this first novel it is that as the conclusion approaches Whitehead begins to lose some steam with the metaphysical nature of the story. Lila Mae's position as "the keeper" of the flame for the cause of the Intuitionists has been apparent from the beginning and is simply endorsed by the ending. Nevertheless, this is a small smudge on an otherwise auspicious debut. The world of "The Intuitionist" is an unforgettable universe cut from whole cloth.