By Jon Hassler

Ballantine. 518 pp. $19.95

BECAUSE HE HAS written two distinctly different kinds of books, Jon Hassler once said, he seems to have "two kinds of readers." One group wants him to "keep things light and funny" and prefers Staggerford, Simon's Night and A Green Journey -- Hassler's first, second and fourth novels. The other likes its fiction "deep and agonizing" and prefers his third book, The Love Hunter.

Hassler's own assessment aside, it is somewhat misleading to call any of his novels "light and funny." Staggerford, set in a small Minnesota town, is the story of how high school teacher Miles Pruitt -- and his spinster landlady, Agatha McGee, a Catholic school teacher for 41 years -- attempt to help one of Miles's female students, with disastrous, violent results. In Hassler's second novel, Simon's Night, retired college professor Simon Shea, fearing he is becoming senile, moves into a nursing home after he acidentally sets fire to his kitchen. Agatha McGee returns in Hassler's fourth novel, A Green Journey. Still teaching, she travels to Ireland to meet the man with whom she has been corresponding, both hoping and fearing that love, at long last, may have entered her life.

What these three novels have in common is a pervasive sense of optimism. Each contains some random violence or petty cruelty, but it is the quirky characters -- people doing the right things for the wrong reasons and the wrong things for the right reasons -- and the moral intelligence evident in Hassler's narrative voice that linger long after you lay down the books. For all the bad things that happen to good people in those three novels, Hassler seems to be saying, the world is basically a good place.

Hassler's third novel, The Love Hunter, is bleaker and more brooding. In it, Chris MacKensie takes his best friend, Larry Quinn, duckhunting, intending to kill him on the trip. Larry is dying of multiple sclerosis, but Chris's is not simply a mission of mercy. Instead, he has fallen in love with Rachel, Larry's wife.

With his newest novel, North of Hope, it is almost as if Hassler tried to join the two broad strands evident in his earlier fiction. On the one hand, this is a book about faith and good works. It is a book about people in small towns, with the same deft character portraits and wry humor that characterized Staggerford, Simon's Night and A Green Journey. On the other hand, there is also a pervasive bleakness to North of Hope -- some people, Hassler seems to be saying, are utterly beyond redemption. This is, of course, legitimate territory for a novelist -- the problem is that some of the situations veer dangerously close to soap opera and melodrama.

North of Hope -- the title refers to a part of northern Minnesota where winter comes early and spring late -- begins in 1949 when Frank Healy sees Libby Girard for the first time. They are both high school students and, watching her leave a movie, Frank thinks, "She's the one . . . She's the one." But it is not just Frank's awkwardness with girls that prevents him from telling Libby his feelings. He is also wrestling with what he has for many years been told was his mother's deathbed wish: "Your mother's dying words were about you, Frank. She said, 'I want Frank to be a priest.' "

Unable to express his love for Libby -- who has her own problems, including an abusive father -- Frank loses her to a farm boy with a "brand-new pickup." A few years later Libby leaves her husband and comes to tell Frank that "I need to know if there's a chance we could ever get together . . . I'm so lonesome for you. It's like nothing I ever felt before, and I'm wondering if it's love." But it is too late. Frank has been away at seminary for three years and has decided to become a priest.

Twenty-three years later Frank returns home to minister to a tribe of Ojibway Indians on the Basswood reservation. Unbeknownst to him, Libby lives on the reservation, with her husband, Tom, the reservation doctor, and her daughter, Verna.

There follow, after this coincidence without which there would be no novel, a number of happenings, some genuinely moving, others less so. At the core of the book is Frank's search to redefine himself as a priest. The seminary where he taught -- the same seminary he himself attended -- has been closed, and he has asked to be assigned to the reservation. Most of the Ojibway no longer hold the church at the center of their lives, however -- the tribal leader, Caesar Pipe, has mounted his television antenna on the steeple -- and Frank doesn't know how to bring them back.

Add to this Libby's problems: Tom's one-year stint on the reservation is part of his probation following his conviction for writing prescriptions for drug addicts. Unable to stay out of trouble, he has become the reservation's chief supplier of illegal drugs. Verna has been often institutionalized and is severely mentally disturbed, not least because Tom has sexually abused her since she was a child. Pretty soon, these become Frank's problems too.

MAKE NO mistake about it -- Jon Hassler writing at half-speed is a better novelist than most writers writing at the top of their potential. But here, what seems most real are not the situations drawn from today's headlines, but the smaller, quieter events or the maddening, circular conversations with Caesar Pipes as Frank tries to get things done at the church. These smack of real life, as does Frank's relationship -- part apprentice, part caretaker -- with Monsignor Adrian Lawrence, the priest he had served as an altar boy and with whom he now works.

When Lawrence confesses that he has been having "lewd thoughts," and that he has been hearing the voice of singer Jo Stafford "saying intimate things," Frank's -- and the reader's -- first impulse is to laugh. But we have seen Lawrence go uncomplainingly about his duties (including the self-imposed task of praying for all the dead celebrities listed in the year-end issue of People magazine) and thus the passage has a certain poignancy, revealing more about the loneliness and dedication of a parish priest than all of Frank's backing and filling about Libby.

David Nicholson is an assistant editor of Book World.