""To the tables I hauled more fried chicken. More baked ham. Delicate corn pudding,"" says Fannie Leary, the narrator of Neilson's richly rendered debut novel, as she describes her work cooking and serving her neighbors. Like the caf of its title, the narrative serves up old-fashioned fare, and lots of it, lovingly prepared. Persia, Miss., is a classic small Southern town, and the story Neilson tells is heartbreakingly familiar, depicting the death throes of the Jim Crow South. In the summer of 1962, Earnest March, a young black man, is seen driving away from his white girlfriend, who is clearly upset, and all the men in town take off after him. They report that he got away, but some days later, Fannie discovers his body floating in the Mississippi. Just who is responsible for Earnest March's death is clear, even to Fannie, but how that murder changes Fannie and the town, whether anyone in her own family was involved and whether guilt can be proved are mysteries that Neilson artfully develops. All this is narrated in sensuous and vivid prose: a cook's hands are ""yellow-gloved in cornmeal""; first sex leaves a young woman thinking of ""salt and green onion."" However, as Fanny remarks, ""There is a narrow moment between ripeness and rot,"" and Neilson's sentences sometimes ripen beyond clarity. Moreover, the engine of plot often kicks in too noisily. But Neilson lavishes such attention on the town and its people that she captures something precious: the feel of a culture at a particular time and the ineffable moment a heart changes. Agent, Nina Graybill. (Jan.) Forecast: Neilson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated memoir, Even Mississippi, is poised to break out with her fiction debut. Initial interest will be fostered by the book clubsDThe Persia Caf is a Literary Guild dual main selection and a Doubleday Book Club featured alternate Dbut Neilson's genuinely appealing tale should also generate word-of-mouth sales.