THE LAST OF HOW IT WAS By T.R. Pearson Linden Press/Simon and Schuster 362 pp. $17.95

WITH The Last of How It Was T.R. Pearson concludes the trilogy he began so auspiciously two years ago with A Short History of a Small Place and continued last year with Off for the Sweet Hereafter. As many readers have by now come to know, the novels are set in and about the fictitious North Carolina town of Neely and are narrated in a droll, loquacious, circumlocutory manner that is firmly rooted in Southern tradition yet is also original and distinctive; if reports I receive from friends and correspondents are any guide, the novels seem to have acquired something of a following, one both admiring and intensely loyal.

No doubt these readers will be pleased with The Last of How It Was, for it is of a piece with the first two novels and comes closer to the robust humor of A Short History of a Small Place than did Off for the Sweet Hereafter, which is of a darker cast. A number of passages in the new novel border on the uproarious, and Pearson's prose at its most pungent is as surprising as it is delightful. But it may be just as well that Pearson has chosen to end the Neely saga with this book, for the narrative voice of young Lewis Benfield shows signs of flagging; for the first time in reading Pearson's work, I found myself wishing that he would hold off on all that digression and trim down those endless sentences, and just get to the point.

But then in Pearson's defense it must be said that as much as anything else The Last of How It Was is a book about tale-telling, and the teller must be allowed to choose his own style. Pearson defines that style himself, when Lewis speaks of one of the novel's principal characters: "Uncle Jack could not ever tell a thing direct and outright partly due to his native faculties which had not ever developed sufficiently so as to allow him to see all of an item without traveling roundabout it and partly due to his mysterious verbosity which would be that same mysterious verbosity he had refined and cultivated somewhere and somehow." Traveling roundabout is Pearson's chosen method, and except when his sentences run on past the point of no return, he executes it to telling and highly amusing effect. Consider, by way of illustration, Lewis Benfield's ruminations on sex:

"Daddy says it is not that simple a business but is instead a bristly and complicated procedure with a variety of phases to it, a whole assortment of ceremonies and rituals and whatnot that climax and culminate with the actual fornicating, or anyhow Daddy says that is the general view of it though he himself is of a mind that the actual fornicating is not truly the climax and culmination but maybe just the appendix or the afterword as what gets put where and worked how is not but the tiniest part of the whole undertaking since there is the sober talking firstoff and then the silly talking and then the extended giggling and then the touching with the fingertips though not of your private and indecent places but just your knees and your forearms and your cheeks and hands and such followed by the innocent kissing and then the deep and meaningful kissing and then the fully clothed rolling around anywhere but in a bed and then the partly clothed rolling around in a bed just sometimes though usually not and then the fullblown nakedness which does not always mean fornication but sometimes instead brings about just your grunting and your aggravation for the man and your sobbing and your apprehension for the woman and then maybe the fornication if there is to be fornication at all and Daddy says it is generally not anything extravagant but is just ordinarily a minute and a half of curious agitation followed by what seems to be interminable indifference."

THAT archetypical passage occurs in the middle of one of Lewis Benfield's extended digressions, this one involving the passion that arises between Lydia Lucas Mims and her brother-in-law, Roy Mims. The digression is from the story of the Matrimony Creek Odom, which is in turn a digression from the story of how Granddaddy Yount, having killed a black car-thief, is awash with rue and wants to "make it all square and make it all proper." This last, along with the concurrent story of how Uncle Jack and Aunt Della killed an Indian mule-thief, is the core upon which all the book's folderol is constructed: a somber tale of blind, reflexive prejudice and "native animosity." As in his previous novels, Pearson is up to serious business here; his subject is the human comedy, in the deepest sense of the term.

The blend of humor and solemnity with which he describes that comedy is remarkably effective. He is treating important themes -- not merely prejudice, but also family character and history, and the burdens of guilt, among others -- and he does so in a revealing way, yet the novel can also be read purely for the spirited fun it provides. It's merely a digression, but the tale of Granddaddy's musical education is wonderful; his inspiration is a pianist named Jonellen Marie Hayes, who "could keep a beat and could keep a rhythm even if she did not always hit the note she reached for but sometimes pulled up shy and sometimes overshot it and consequently provided a kind of variety in her music that was not consistently pleasing but was ever novel and unexpected." Other stories that can be recommended enthusiastically are the ablution of Mr. Emmett Dabb, the aforementioned Lydia and Roy Mims affair, and the seaside excursion of Mrs. Phillip J. King; all are just about as funny as anything in A Short History of a Small Place, which is saying something.

To my taste, though, The Last of How It Was sags in the middle; that is a common problem in comic novels, Catch-22 being perhaps the best-known example, and this time around Pearson does not escape it. But he recovers nicely in the final section, and brings the trilogy to an entirely satisfactory conclusion. He also, inescapably, leaves the reader wondering what will come next. The voice he has established in these novels is so distinct and charming that it is difficult to imagine him writing otherwise, yet it clearly is a narrative style that belongs specifically and irremovably to the trilogy. Pearson is wise enough to know that Lewis Benfield and the citizens of Neely have taken him as far as they can, but he's also young and talented and has many books ahead of him -- and, into the bargain, he has readers who have developed high expectations. Let's hope that, whatever form it takes, he finds another Neely for them.