THIS STORY begins with "On the twenty-sixth of July my best friend decided he would kill me," and ends with "On the twenty-sixth of August, I killed my best friend." The month between the two dates is given over to a narrative that is lean, mean and clean, a narrative that is set in the West Texas town of Amarillo, and that has at its heart the bone-deep friendship between two men, Boone Randolph and Grady Hornsby, who grew up together. Few people are ever privileged to know such a friendship, and rarely has one been caught between the covers of a book with the immediacy, the pain, and the glory of Deep in the Heart. The real strength of this novel lives in the fully realized characters of these two men, either one of whom for reasons of love would have gone to the wall for the other. But love, as everybody knows, can bring about mortal difficulties as quickly as any other passion, even hatred. Neither man kills the other, though, as is suggested by the lines quoted above, lines spoken by the narrator of the story. Boone Randolph. At least neither literally kills the other, but they kill each other emotionally and spiritually, and their friendship dies, which is as sad as either of their deaths could have been.

Three years ago Wyatt published Catching Fire, a good, journeyman first novel. He is that rare being, a true storyteller, and I read the book with more than a little admiration because I thought it promised much. With Deep in the Heart, Wyatt has delivered on that promise. His writing is surer; the evocation of the landscape and the part it plays in the lives of the people who move through it is more momorable. To live through the experience of a West Texas drought in the summertime, or to feel what it means to be an urban cowboy in pointed boots and a Stetson hat long after everything that made the boots and hat necessary has vanished, is worth the price of the book.

Boone Randolph and Grady Hornsby are as different from one another as any two men one is apt to imagine. Boone is from a stable family, college educated, and works as a psychologist in a hospital. He is fastidious of dress, manner and speech. Grady, illegitimate and abandoned at the age of 11, shovels cow manure at a local nursery, and drives a pickup truck with a shotgun in a rack behind his head. His speech is laced with seamy idiom and he is given to extreme violence when he is drunk, which is most of the time. He is not fond of bathing, and he is subject to smell like his pockets are filled with ripe chicken guts. Their friendship is a curious thing to behold as it unfolds in the pages of this book. But one comes to realize that the basis of the friendship is that each sees in the other something that he is not but wishes he was.

One night they are in a saloon called the Parrot, so named because the owner keeps an old parrot that wanders up and down the bar making a nuisance out of himself. Grady, in sudden, drunken malevolence picks up the parrot and bites his head off. "Grady rose from the stool, looked slowly around the bar, meeting every eye, the bloody green feathers and white vermiform neck cord still dangling from his mouth, and then spat the head on the bar, where it plopped sodden beside the bird's dead body." It's not so much that Boone admires such a thing, it's just that he wishes he had it in himself to do it if he ever wanted to. Grady, on the other hand, wishes he would get sober, land a better job, wear a suit, and stop doing things like bitting the heads off old parrots.

Before the book is over, the wishes of both men have come ture, because of their struggle over -- what else? -- the heart and favors of a woman. In spite of themselves, in spite of their best intentions, they manage to betray each other in the game men have been playing since they came down out of trees. Grady wins the woman, and loses everthing he ever was or truly wanted, although he doesn't realize it. But the reader does. Boone loses on all counts and does realize it, being more perceptive than the man he loves like a brother, but who is no longer -- and can never be again -- his friend.

It is one of the paradoxes of literature that losing love and friendship can be as beautiful and moving as finding it. Deep in the Heart bears testimony to that paradox.