To be blunt, I had about given up on the novel before reading Charles Chadwick's "It's All Right Now." Supposedly important new fiction (from Ian McEwan to Jonathan Safran Foer) suffers from--no, dies from--overcalculation, as if novelists sense critics and fellow writers watching the words creep across the screen. Chadwick, a 72-year-old British civil servant and first novelist, is an amateur with no career to sustain and seemingly no preconception of what a novel is. The printer Samuel Richardson, who wrote "Pamela" and "Clarissa" after cranking out a letter-writing manual, was such an amateur. So was the journalist Charles Dickens, who spun his first novel, "The Pickwick Papers," out of sketches written to accompany some comic prints. Have I just compared some duffer (with a six-figure deal) to these masters of the English novel? I guess I have.

"It's All Right Now" has the exhilarating freshness of not knowing any better. The narrator, Tom Ripple, is an office drudge with a Beckettian lack of all certainty: "All [my children] need to know, I decide sometimes, is that wisdom is a form of exhaustion." (Note the "sometimes.") He sits down periodically over 30 years to write about his life; much like a real life, it's episodic, with little plot or unity. We go from London to Surrey to Treblinka, people appear and disappear in Ripple's life, nothing resolves. Hasn't Chadwick heard this isn't how it's done? The guy-writes-his-life premise is as naive as the notion that a life is a story; narrative voice alone, he must have been told, can't carry a whole book. Thank God he didn't listen. Ripple's voice is so convincing you don't just know him--you are him. Does it matter if he runs on a bit?

Ripple tells us he wouldn't know how to write a novel--"Not that it matters if it's just fiction. It's not like having to do justice to real people." The key word is "justice." No writer--no writer--has ever been more scrupulous in honoring his characters' complexity, in distinguishing who they sometimes appear to be from who they sometimes are. (The other key word is "sometimes.") It can be cold under the surface. When Ripple's neighbor leaves her cats in someone else's care, he's offended and also relieved: "Being kind is like that, being jolly glad we only seldom have to be." Yet Chadwick's people ache for human connection, and sometimes get to keep it. Until somebody dies.

Chadwick is no unlettered primitive. Judging by Ripple's voice, his creator must have read Beckett, and perhaps Joseph Heller's "Something Happened." He alludes repeatedly to the poetry of Philip Larkin--whose dreary and solitary later life, in which he spent his evenings drinking and watching television, must have been partly a model for Ripple's. But "It's All Right Now," like its narrator, is radically original despite (and because of) its naivete. It doesn't rethink the novel: it thinks up the novel from scratch. That's how the masters did it. And--I'll just say it--still do.