THE CROW ROAD By Iain Banks (Abacus, $119) IAIN Banks' first novel The Wasp Factory was widely-acclaimed by critics as a stunning debut. Since then each new novel has been greeted with acclaim and he is now regarded as being at the forefront of Scottish literature. The dust-jacket reviews of his latest work, The Crow Road , are glowing, but are they justified? A thumbnail sketch of the plot would suggest not. Prentice McHoan reaches his final year at Glasgow University, where general melancholy, unrequited love anda succession of alcoholic benders seem destined to bring a mediocre end to his academic career. He frequently returns to the small town in Argyll, Scotland, where he grew up and where relations with his father have reached an all-time low. But though the storyline is not strong, the characters and their lives make up for such shortcomings. Mr Banks describes the lives of previous generations of McHoans. His flashbacks can be infuriating and confusing and are too frequently used, but he hascarefully laid them out like a delicate montage and events from the past to help explain what is happening in the present. Running throughout the novel is a mystery figure, Prentice's Uncle Rory, a tragic romantic who went to find enlightenment in India, came back with a best-selling travel book and then disappeared without trace. Prentice's grandmother tells him she is sure Rory went along the Crow Road, her way of saying he died, and as various family members make this final trip, Prentice begins to suspect some may have been helped on their way. At its best, The Crow Road almost has the whimsical quality of a Bill Forsyth film, although the humour is darker. There are times when Mr Banks loses his way, but the novel is worth sticking with for the ferociously witty times when he and Prentice get rudely back on course.