Scott Elliott, Author . Putnam $23.95 (293p) ISBN 978-0-399-15038-8

The long shadow of guilt darkens Elliott's debut novel, which gets off to a strong start when a young boy's prank ends up killing his new neighbor. Seven-year-old Tobia Caldwell instinctively hates the families who are moving into the new houses built on land the Caldwells have been forced to sell, and he decides to take revenge on new boy Ben Wilson by hinting at the presence of a silver dollar in what is actually the lair of a waiting cottonmouth near his family's Tennessee estate. After Ben dies from the snake's bite, Tobia hides his pivotal role in the boy's death. His father ferrets out the truth, though, and instills a desire in Tobia to spend the rest of his life pursuing ways to make up for his deed. Complications ensue when as a teenager Tobia falls in love with Ben's twin sister, Merritt. Later, he decides against law school and devotes himself obsessively to the study of herpetology, as a partial gesture of redemption, and Merritt and Tobia's relationship hits a series of rough patches, mainly stemming from Tobia's guilt. Elliott establishes a strong narrative line in the early going, and his graceful, wry writing about the Southern legacy of the Caldwells lends the book an elegant charm. The narrative is richly atmospheric as Elliot examines the complex Southern heritage of gentlemen landowners and their slaves, good old boys and rednecks, whose values continue to influence their descendants. The deliberate evolution of the relationship between Merritt and Tobia, however, as Tobia wrestles with his conscience and Merritt keeps her own secrets, makes the pace sometimes sluggish. Elliott shows promise as a solid, assured stylist, but the lack of crisp plotting is a noticeable flaw. (Aug.)

Reviewed on: 06/02/2003
Release date: 07/01/2003
Paperback - 304 pages - 978-0-425-19701-1
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