You sit in this antiseptic room and listen to more of the world's injuries, witnessing little tableaus of vengeance of the kind people seem able to muster only for those they once loved. A room where old scores are settled, betrayals are paid back, in full measure, and masses are said in legal language over the death of feeling."

That bleak scene took place in a Chicago divorce courtroom almost five years ago. The observer, as well as participant, was Joseph Epstein—then 33, a writer and editor with an upper-middle-class income and two young sons. Out of that legal ritual came not only the death of his ten-year-old marriage, but the seeds of Divorced in America (E.P. Dutton & Co.), one of the most searching, serious books yet to probe the moral and social dilemmas faced by the victims of ruined marriages.

Epstein makes no effort to conceal his depressing, and currently unfashionable theme: that, while often necessary (one in four American marriages are dissolved), divorce is defeat. "It is not 'creative,' or 'fulfilling,' " he writes, "and is rarely accomplished without substantial pain and sadness. If one has the least shred of introspection, the decision to divorce is to own up to one's own dismal failure."

On the surface, at least, Epstein's own marital breakup appears to contain few of the horrors most men complain of. They mutually agreed that their marriage was finished. But his wife, Elizabeth Joan Bales Epstein, clearly had no taste for vengeance. She allowed her husband to seek the divorce, asked for neither alimony nor the custody of their two young sons Mark, now 13½ and Burton, 12. (Both boys spend summers with their mother on the West Coast where she now lives.) When she left, she took only the car and the family dog, "Max," and even "Max" is now back with Epstein. Says Epstein cryptically, "She was travelling light."

Epstein deliberately has kept his wife a non-developed character in Divorced and still refuses to discuss her. Instead he has woven his personal odyssey into a compendium of statistics and data, charting the disintegration of his marriage with a scholar's detachment. "What I tried to do," he admits, "is sort out some of the problems facing all marriages. But some reviewers hold I'm more in the dark than ever."

What Epstein does illuminate is the disorientation bordering on despair felt by many divorced men. "I'm not at all surprised at their suicide rate," he says, noting that it is four times that of married men. "Feelings of lostness, of worthlessness, are common. Most of the stupid things intelligent people do are done for reasons of loneliness." His own life was largely rebuilt by necessity. "If I'd had enough money maybe I could have afforded a nervous breakdown. Someone said that, to prevent madness, God created details. And, I might add, children. I was so busy keeping the ship afloat that the loneliness gradually wore off."

Now, after four and a half years, Epstein is comfortable with his divorce and even jokes quietly about his situation with other occupants of his six-story Chicago apartment building, which is dubbed "Divorce Heights." A shy man with traditional values, Epstein has self-consciously rejected most sexual experimentation. His one effort at adultery during his marriage, he records, left him feeling "shoddy."

"I realize now," he recalls, "how pathetic the whole thing was. Sometimes we are forced into behavior patterns that are absurd: like the guy you see who's newly divorced and is letting his sideburns grow, wearing hippy clothes much too young for him and driving a Jag. There's an odious new word loose in the land, 'lifestyle.' If you don't like yourself move to a new town and adopt a new lifestyle."

Epstein's current pattern of living includes a lady friend "who is very close and dear to me," but he is uncertain about remarriage. "I realize, even if I'd met my ideal woman ten years ago, I'd be divorced from her now." But he concludes, "Marriage is still the best game in town." Traditional marriages will continue to survive, he believes, but they will depend even more than they do now on selflessness, character and love, "Good marriages are a great thing," he says. "They could well become our rarest works of art."