THE RESURRECTIONISTS

By Michael Collins

Scribner. 304 pp. $24

In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, one can keep oneself well occupied driving a snowplow in the days before Thanksgiving. It is a bleak, unforgiving and harsh part of the world, and it is the setting for a curiously compelling novel by Irish-born author Michael Collins. The Resurrectionists is a story of unsettled lives and dark family secrets, played out against the bone-chilling cold of that region.

The novel, the author's second, concerns the life -- such as it is -- of Frank Cassidy, a man who is a little older than young but not quite middle-aged. In the late 1970s, after he learns of the death of the uncle who raised him, Cassidy packs his wife, stepson and son into a series of stolen cars and returns home to the town of his youth. He had been orphaned at age 5, after a fire killed his parents on their hard-luck farm. Cassidy, who narrates the tale, hopes that some sort of settlement of his uncle's meager estate will become an avenue to a new and better existence.

It does -- but only after much painful past has been unearthed -- and not in the way that Cassidy first envisioned.

The Resurrectionists is both a journey and an adventure for its characters. The book finds its tension in the slow, often unsettling unraveling of the mystery of its narrator's past. Who set the fire? Why did they do it? What was the real nature of Cassidy's relationship with the uncle who raised him and the cousin he came to know as a brother?

As Cassidy pursues the answers to these questions, the story is simultaneously driven along by questions about the present. Was the uncle murdered, or did he kill himself? Precisely who is the silent, damaged man who was found at the scene of the uncle's death?

Collins's first novel, The Keepers of Truth, was celebrated both here and in his native Ireland. But whether The Resurrectionists will achieve the same level of acclaim is uncertain. The people of this novel all come from so much poverty and hardship that often the details of their dead-end lives overcome the intrigue surrounding what will happen to them. And, while some characters, such as a Vietnam veteran working as a security guard, come alive on the pages, others, such as the narrator's son and stepson, seem shallow and less developed -- almost as if the author were less concerned with them and significantly less interested in what happens to them.

That said, the book truly rises or falls on the strength of the connection the reader feels with Cassidy. In some regards, he is an intriguing character: intelligent, driven to ferret out the answers to his own troubled past. Yet at the same time, he is curiously obtuse and unobservant. There is an odd passivity about him that contradicts this sense of discovery. He is a rudderless man, searching for a favorable breeze, but often unable to recognize the currents that move him through life. In a world of limited dreams and realities defined by the wind-whipped, snowed-in existence of the Upper Peninsula, his ambitions are modest. He merely aspires to grasp some normalcy and cloak himself in it.

If there is some brilliance in this novel, that is where it lies. Frank Cassidy, telling his own tale, doesn't hope for genie-in-a-bottle success. He simply wants reason imposed on a life that has precious little of that commodity. He wants to take his doubting wife, Honey, along on this most meager of quests. He wants some happiness, and he is willing to settle for the lowest-rent version, as long as it is real.

This makes the story unusually compelling. One doesn't exactly come to like any of the people in this book, and that goes especially for the narrator. But on the other hand, one is eager to know what happens to them all. And, like Cassidy, one hopes that eventually even a little bit of good fortune might come their way.

In a time when so many authors are driven to tell overblown, gigantic stories, Michael Collins has selected a small one -- and perhaps says more than a couple of the big ones put together. *

John Katzenbach is the author of eight novels, including "Hart's War" and "The Analyst."