Jack R. Riggs, Author . Ballantine $23.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-345-46794-2

A North Carolina mill town in 1968 is the setting for this strained, overwritten first novel about an intense friendship between two boys from troubled families. Twelve-year-old Raybert's mother, Evelyn, is mentally unstable; she bounces from periods of lucidity to moments when, as Raybert's Aunt Iris puts it, she's "like a dog that chases its tail." Ray, her husband, similarly lurches back and forth between episodes of drunken brawling and responsible fatherhood. Raybert's best friend, Palmer, is an oddly precocious boy, effeminate at times and often sounding older than his 12 years. His widowed mother, Inez, and her brutal boyfriend, Edgar, beat him mercilessly, forcing him into a hideaway crawl space beneath the house. The boys' discovery of ugly family secrets—Raybert's father seems to have been involved in a lynching, and Edgar is hiding nude photographs of Palmer's teenage sister—further shakes their faith in grownups. Turning to each other for solace, they develop a quasi-romantic relationship (in one of Raybert's dreams, Palmer kisses him on the lips) and dream of escaping to a fantasy world that includes Evel Knievel and the Lone Ranger. Riggs's sympathy for his characters is evident, and he conveys a strong visceral sense of their ramshackle physical surroundings and the tense national political climate. But choked, awkward sentences ("His cold, violent stare ratcheted down instantly to something of surprise") and choppy plotting squeeze the life out of Riggs's heartfelt tale. (Oct.)

Reviewed on: 09/15/2003
Release date: 09/01/2003
Paperback - 272 pages - 978-0-345-46819-2
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