America's loss of innocence in the rock and roll 1950s parallels one boy's painful transformation into a man in Watson's affecting fifth novel (Deadly Sweet, etc.). Twelve-year-old Travis is having a tough childhood: his beloved Japanese mother is in a mental institution, leaving him in the care of his emotionally unavailable Marine father, and he is constantly tormented by a redneck teenage neighbor. His life changes dramatically when he leaves Omaha to spend the summer with his father's family in Widow Rock, Fla. Travis's grandfather is the town's stern sheriff, his grandmother is often bedridden with headaches or heat exhaustion and his saucy Aunt Delia ("the subject of eighty percent of all Widow Rock Gossip Reports") is a 16-year-old spitfire. Travis is smitten by her verve from the moment she screeches to a halt in her '55 Chevy, and aunt and nephew bond quickly. Delia trusts her secrets with Travis, and he gains a masculine sense of protectiveness as he learns about the power of sex, lust and violence. The novel's take on the social politics of a small Southern town is predictable, and the secondary characters tend to fall into stock categories (the arrogant rich boy, the tough but sensitive greaser), but this is easily forgivable because Watson portrays the rich relationship between Travis and Delia with convincing psychological detail. Besotted with Delia, Travis loses emotional control and commits an outrageous act. The suspense builds to an explosive ending, and Travis's coming of age is brutal, touching and memorable. While Watson breaks no new ground here, he proves himself a first-rate storyteller. (Nov.)
Forecast:Regional sales in the South could start this novel on a word-of-mouth upswing. 150,000 first printing.