IN THIS, her fourth novel, Joan Williams takes substantial risks. Though the physical setting is narrow-- a tiny Mississippi community called Itna Homa--the actual reach of the novel is considerable. It is a portrait not merely of Allie McCall, the central character, but of the entire town. Taking place in the fall of 1962, as James Meredith enters the University of Mississippi, the novel depicts the state at the moment of "the end of living the way us Southern white people have." Into the bargain the novel is an account of how one woman confronts her subservient role and decides to break out of it.

Allie McCall is 50, married to an easy-going farmer named Tate McCall, living with him and her nonagenarian father; the couple is childless. From the south, word comes that four black convicts have escaped from the state penitentiary at Parchman and that one of them is from the Itna Homa area. He can be only one person: Elgie Hale, who was convicted more than four decades ago of the murder of Allie's mother, a woman of liberal instincts who had taught him how to read. Now Elgie may be heading back to Itna Homa. Does he have revenge in mind, against Poppa or Allie?

This crisis--actually more one of the imagination than of actual events--sets Allie off on a chain of circumstanes that eventually changes her life radically. The pivotal character is not Elgie but James Meredith, who does not make a single appearance in the novel yet gives Allie her inspiration:

"Alone for a moment on the splinterless old porch, its sheen as silvery as Loma's worn counters, she drew in the first faintly chilly air of the season. Mister Otis was still idling on the road before starting to his house beyond the Baptist church. The old man on his tottery legs should not always choose to walk down the middle of the road, as it was hard to see his bent figure in this light. Yet town had nearly cleared of cars, now, since it was suppertime. She supposed that just living was what most people were doing. Never had she been content with the idea of simple existence, and yet never had she known, either, what to do beyond that. When she thought about Meredith, one lone Negro going to the university, making a mark on history, she longed more deeply to make some mark of her own."

The odds are heavily against her. In the rural South of two decades ago (as for that matter in the rural South of 1982), a woman confronted her own forms of invidious discrimination. At an early age, Allie had acquired "a sense of female helplessness in a male world." Now she lives with two men who take her for granted--the meals she cooks, the sewing and cleaning she does, the reassuring presence that she provides. Inside, she seethes: "After years of living with two of them she accepted that what made up men beside snips and snails and puppy-dog tails was a certain insensitivity." And: "Though her nature was to be complacent, she had found herself recently plotting the murders of the two men she lived with, without coming up with a foolproof scheme."

What finally shakes her out of her rut is a series of violent incidents. The bodies of four dogs are found in front of the general store, cruelly and systematically run over. The constable, called to Oxford to help contain the turmoil at the university, is killed as he drives home; his car runs off the road in suspicious circumstances. An auto mechanic is seriously beaten, his ear nearly severed. And an old man is killed by a passing auto as he walks home late one evening.

The evidence, mostly circumstantial, points to the son of the town banker, a spoiled boy with a taste for alcohol, an inability to hold it, and a fancy sports car in which to terrorize the countryside. But people who can implicate the youth are afraid to step forward because of his father's power. Gradually Allie, outraged by the boy's behavior, steps into the case; in the end her involvement leads to her decision, vigorously opposed by her husband--who considers it embarrassing--to run for the office of constable.

As this brief outline suggests, the plot of County Woman is complex--and this outline is far from complete, as several subplots have been omitted. Because Joan Williams wants to include so much, she occasionally loses control of her material; for pages at a time, Allie vacates the center of her own story. Though the Meredith case animates the novel, its connection to Allie's life is more thematic--indeed, programmatic-- than actual; from time to time Williams seems to pause, remind herself of the Meredith connection, and drop in a somewhat strained reference to it. And a final reservation is that Allie's discovery of her independence and worth smacks just a bit of 1980s ideology being imposed on an early-'60s setting; it doesn't always fit.

But this is an intelligent and well-written novel, one with a secure grasp on time, place and character. The hamlet of Itna Homa (an entirely plausible place name for rural Mississippi, by the way) is portrayed with economy and a sure knowledge of local custom. Williams remembers precisely what the rural South was like two decades ago, not merely the details but the attitudes, and she gets it all down exactly right. In disclosing the roots of Allie's rebelliousness, she displays her own awareness of Southern nuance:

"One day when she was nine, a Negro came to the front door, his cap properly in hand, asking Poppa if he had some yard work--those days people were begging for any kind of little job and a little food and coffee or iced tea to go along with it. 'Go around to the back door, boy, and I'll talk to you,' Poppa had said. She had watched the grown Negro pass by a window, that cap between his fingers like an animal pinching something to eat between paws, on his face a look that was neither sullenness nor rage, but some dark sense of wonder. Years later she would think about his coming to the front door in the first place, knowing the taboo--had he been a man with a single, silent protest before his time? That moment was when a social consciousness was born in her: though she had no name for her feelings till she was older."

This is not the first time Williams has written about the ways in which the observation of discrimination against blacks slowly awakens whites to the limits of their own worlds; it is a theme that recurs in her work. Here she does so more effectively when Allie deals with events out of her own life rather than those at the university. But County Woman never fails to be intelligent or interesting, and it is always a pleasure to read. It is likely to bring Joan Williams more attention and praise than she has received since publication of her first novel, The Morning and the Evening. Certainly it is her best novel since that one, and a book that I admire very much.