AT FIRST, THIS NOVEL seems easy to categorize. A contemporary Western, its hero is an old man forced off his horse into a pick-up truck. It is also a morality play, cast with a bureaucracy-numbed social worker, a street-tough black, and the citizenry of a rural New Mexico town. Finally it dissolves into the all-too-familiar single-father theme this time with a grandfather who raises his orphaned 16-year-old grandson. But Next of Kin slowly rises above such labeling because it captures the magic of people who simply love and need each other.

The grandson is city-sassy and mulatto. The grandfather is cranky and not too pleased to discover black blood in the family. Loyalty forces him to bring the unwanted grandchild to his home town. There the boy -- who considers himself black -- promptly elicits animosity from everyone except the high school basketball coach and the prettiest girl in town. She, of course, is white, and has several dozen male relatives ready to protect her purity. What happens next is not as dramatic as it is believable. Oliver Lange demonstrates that many cliches are indeed true: Love doesn't come easily; people are all the same underneath; and it's good to take care of your own.