Timothy Egan, . . Knopf, $24.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-1-4000-4099-5

Scattered, clumsy and overearnest, this debut novel by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Egan tells the story of Brunella Cartolano, an architect who strives to save the family vineyards in the arid wine country east of Washington's Cascade Mountains. On a visit home, Brunella finds her widowed father aging quickly and a water crisis underway; after four years of drought, tempers are frayed in the region. A fire breaks out nearby, and Brunella's younger brother, Niccolo, a firejumper on his summer break from college, is sent to fight it, along with Teddy Flax, a neighbor with a romantic interest in Brunella. Something goes wrong, and Niccolo is killed; Teddy is terribly disfigured. Brunella is enmeshed in the investigation of the tragedy and works with Leon Treadtoofar, the Nez Perce Forest Service man trying to find out who was at fault for the mishap. Meanwhile, Brunella is caught up in a feud over stolen water, finds herself battling the Seattle company she is working for and tries to prevent the sale of the family farm by her unscrupulous older brother, Robert. Egan shakily juggles his convoluted and competing plot lines, skipping erratically from scene to scene. When he slows down, some evocative moments emerge, among them the smoke-jumping episodes and Brunella's dramatic meeting in a church with Teddy. But Egan never manages to make the crusading, Italian-spouting Brunella engaging, and awkward dialogue, unconvincing relationships and forced symbolism further hamstring the novel. Egan's nonfiction journey through the American West, Lasso the Wind (1998), was widely praised; with this foray into fiction, he loses his way. (Jan.)