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First novel of father-son conflict, beautifully told; Say Goodbye to Sam, by Michael J. Arlen. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 231 pp. $12.95.

Having established himself as a writer of excellent nonfiction (including ''Passage to Ararat,'' which won the National Book Award in 1976), Michael J. Arlen has written his first novel, which demonstrates that his skill extends to fiction.

One is tempted to wonder if he steered clear of fiction all these years because of the fame of his novelist father, Michael Arlen. Such speculation seems fair in this instance, since this novel describes what it is like to have a famous father; and the narrator is a writer of prizewinning nonfiction who remarks about his father and himself, ''He's creative. I'm a journalist.''

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But the father of Tom Avery, the narrator, isn't a novelist. Sam Avery is a famous movie director, who, when Tom was growing up, was always too busy to pay attention to his wife and son.

At the age of 39, Tom takes his wife, Catherine, to the family ranch to meet his father, who is an arrogant, attractive, and glamorous scoundrel. Though Tom had hoped that ''I'd be strong enough to make him like me,'' he runs head-on into the old problems he hoped maturity would cure.

Confrontation scenes ensue - on horseback, at the dinner table, Tom seeking the praise he'd sought as a child, Sam scornful even of his books, explaining, ''I didn't say I didn't read 'em. I just said I didn't finish 'em.'' Sam does approve of Catherine. Unsophisticated to begin with, she will have done a lot of growing up by the novel's end. There is an elegiac tone to this novel and a dreamy detachment, an ironic aloofness, all of which provide a perfect contrast to Sam's gusto. This is an old, old tale of father-son conflict and of love, told beautifully.

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