Robley Wilson, . . St. Martin's, $24.95 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-312-33679-0

Wilson began writing novels relatively late in his career; for many years he was best known as a short story writer (Dancing for Men , etc.). His third novel (after Splendid Omens , 2004) is a somber, dust-crusted tale of Iowa farm life and middle-aged love and disappointment. Arlene Tobler is in her 50s, a farm wife who once dreamed of being a schoolteacher and now finds refuge in reading. She and her husband, Paul, inhabit their farmhouse like two dry cornstalks ("her marriage like the ritual passage of a man and woman on tracks that paralleled but rarely crossed"). Elsewhere, love is blooming: the Toblers' neighbor, Nancy Riker, admits to Arlene that she's having an affair with another neighbor, Burton Stone, a sin for which everyone but the sinners will pay. Arlene narrates the first half of the novel, while Nancy picks up the tale in the second half as misfortunes multiply and old grudges fester. Two gun shots propel the story's action, but Wilson is more interested in the emotional toll of events than he is in their dramatic outcome. The novel makes it plain—perhaps excessively plain—that we pay for our mistakes, and that redemption is hard to come by. Agent, Robert Preskill. (Feb.)