A murder has been committed on the banks of the Mississippi River. From the beginning we know who the murderer was; it is the victim's identity which remains uncertain until the conclusion of this first novel. In the meantime we learn the stories of two men with similar names, each escaping one thing and pursuing another.

Robard Hewes is escaping the wife he left in California and pursuing Beuna, an Arkansas slut he had fallen in love with some years before. What Sam Newel is running from and toward is perhaps more elusive: an intellectual law student, he flees Chicago and the pressures of a world in which he was "flying apart" to return south in hopes of finding some clearer sense of self, some firmer identity. The two meet at a strange and menacing hunting camp on an island in the middle of the Mississippi, a hideaway presided over by the fierce and determined Mr. Lamb. Hunter and hunted exchange places again and again until the novel's violent end.

One might guess from this brief outline that we are in Faulkner country. The novel suffers from its own excesses, excesses seen far too often in Southern fiction of the last 30 years: an atmosphere of gloom and doom interlaced with black and bitter comedy; bizarre characters, sometimes called "Southern grotesques"; a situation in extremis, full of purposelessness and randon violence; a certain circularity of style, sometimes known as the "Southern floodwater" school of writing, in which the prose goes on and on, turning in on itself, slowly building up to overwhelm the reader in a great torrent. The problem is that it is impossible, and senseless, to do what Faulkner did first - and best.

Despite these criticisms, Richard Ford is a writer of considerable talent and there are moments when the novel rises above its limitations: in odds and ends of wonderfully realized detail, in the character of Mr. Lamb, in his wife's story of how she acquired her glass eye, in a memorable mishap on a fishing trip. It is not that Ford cannot tell a story but that he has not found his own story to tell. Given his gifts, he will no doubt find that story and, with it, his own voice. (Harper and Row, $8.95)

Susan Wood