THE FALL OF THE YEAR

By Howard Frank Mosher

Houghton Mifflin. 278 pp. $24

Reviewed by Sudip Bose

"The best American fiction," Flannery O'Connor wrote in 1963, "has always been regional." These few words hold much wisdom: When fiction is grounded in locale, born out of a deeply felt sense of place, it comes alive in the imagination. The trick, of course, is for a novel to transcend the regional at the same time that it is immersed in it, to aspire to some larger truth, to provide the reader with what O'Connor called "the possibility of reading a small history in a universal light." The failure to turn this difficult trick is what relegates most regional novels to the great dustbin of mediocrity. But in Howard Frank Mosher we have a novelist who not only knows every acre of his terrain -- the hills, streams and woods of northern Vermont -- he also has his eyes set on something loftier: the very mysteries of human existence.

Set in the late 1950s, The Fall of the Year, Mosher's latest novel about the fictional village of Kingdom Common, is in part the story of Father George Lecoeur, a onetime minor-league baseball player, semipro boxer and whiskey smuggler who has been the village Catholic priest for nearly 40 years. This cursing, beer-swilling man is anything but your typical man of God. But he is also a meticulous scholar, at work on a 3,000-page book entitled, without irony, "A Short History of Kingdom Common." His adopted son, Frank Bennett, is the novel's narrator, a young man just out of college, questioning his own plans to enter the seminary in the fall.

Among the things Father George imparts to Frank are a joyous love of the land and a reverence for its secrets. As the narrator says of the priest, "he knew where the last big brook trout spawning bed in Kingdom County was, up on the flow north of his hunting camp. He knew how to find a bee tree, full of wild dark honey; where the hidden springs in the bog and the big surrounding woods were; where the best spots were to wait in November for a buck to come down to the flow to drink."

Mosher's novel is filled with placid and elegant descriptions of nature, at times reminding me of a prose pastoral symphony. But people, not maple trees and trout streams alone, make a novel breathe, and this -- his talent for creating lively, living characters -- is Mosher's greatest gift. The Fall of the Year enlists a colorful cast: the Chinese merchant Sam E. Rong, who upon underselling the competition is run out of town; Louvia DeBanville, the tart-tongued fortune teller; a 19-year-old redhead named Molly Murphy, who wants nothing more than to become a daredevil circus aerialist; Foster Boy Dufresne, the obese idiot savant of Kingdom Common, who wrestles with theological questions while enduring the ridicule of heartless village folk.

The book is episodic, with each chapter an independent narrative about a different character and his or her relationship to the narrator (the title could very well have been "The Education of Frank Bennett," less poetic though it would have been). As diverse as these people are, they all share a rootedness to the northern Vermont landscape they inhabit. Mosher deftly endows his characters with attributes of the natural world. So in one scene, Foster Boy Dufresne bays "like a Canada lynx." In another, he celebrates a string of bingo triumphs by "hooting like a great horned owl, croaking like a raven, producing an uncanny imitation of a swamp bittern's gulping cry." Then there's the age-old feud between the Lacourse and Gambini families, which is likened "to a force of nature, like the water that ran into the granite quarry."

In the end, The Fall of the Year is an elegy for a disappearing place, a vanishing way of life, and in this respect the novel comes to represent much of rural America, not just an insular Vermont village. "Throughout the Kingdom," Frank tells us, "family dairy farms were going under at an alarming rate and the county's outlying four-corner hamlets, with their ramshackle stores and one-man sawmills and one-room schools, were vanishing like the once-cleared fields around them."

The village may be in its autumnal years, but as Mosher shows, the land remains, the mystery of place is sustained. In the final chapter of Father George's "Short History," Frank finds a telling passage describing the area known as Lord's Bog. "In the morning sunlight," Frank says, "I read again how the bog and the notch below it had been carved out 10,000 years ago by the glacier, how the bog was feared by the Indians, how it was discovered in 1759 by Rogers' Rangers, and, ultimately, how it was preserved from obliteration by the horse-logger Noel Lord." Mosher's kingdom, then, is timeless. It existed well before man, has survived his spell upon it, and will do so long after the curtain has fallen upon the final human drama. Eudora Welty once wrote that "place has a more lasting identity than we have." Indeed it does.

Sudip Bose is associate editor of Preservation magazine.