ANGELS CREST

By Leslie Schwartz. Doubleday. 303 pp. $23.95

The disappearance of a child is a primordial parental terror, a primal event in the life of a community. Surely most parents have projected themselves into the nightmares of possibility, that chilling folk tale that begins: "But . . . I just turned my back for a moment. . . . " Given the cultural dread in the air, it's no surprise that many contemporary novelists have been drawn to this subject -- consider such works as Ian McEwan's metaphysical horror story The Child in Time; Andrew Vachss's angry, socially conscious mysteries like Blue Belle; Anne Ursu's whimsically surreal The Disapparation of James; and Kevin Brockmeier's meditative fantasy The Truth about Celia. Whether presented as suspense or melodrama, the legend of the lost child has become a Rorschach image, in which we perceive all the irrecoverable mistakes that we guilty parents know we are making.

Though it begins with a missing child, Leslie Schwartz's novel Angels Crest is more of a portrait of a community than it is a thriller. It starts one December morning on the outskirts of a small California Sierra town, when Ethan Denton, recently granted full custody of his 3-year-old son, stops his pickup at the edge of the woods. Little Nate is in the passenger seat, asleep, and Ethan wanders a bit away from his vehicle to scout for deer. When he comes back, the boy is gone.

From there the novel begins to branch out into multiple points of view, following the community's search for the child, chronicling the aftermath and consequences of the boy's disappearance, and tracing the waves these events make in the town and beyond. Besides using Ethan's viewpoint, Schwartz presents things from the perspective of Nate's mother, Cindy, a severely alcoholic young woman; Ethan's former best friend, Glick, whose affair with Cindy -- Ethan caught them in bed together -- helped precipitate their divorce; Glick's friend Angie, a waitress at the town diner; Angie's lesbian sister, Rocksan, a former city girl who has become a beekeeper; Rocksan's lover, Jane, a former Ohio preacher's wife who occasionally babysat for little Nate; and Judge Jack Rosenthal, a kindly old man who comes down from the city to help with the search.

The connections among these seven characters are intricate, and the novel is further complicated as Nate's disappearance evokes painful memories for many of them -- Angie, for example, is now raising the illegitimate child her daughter has left her with. "Dear Mom," the daughter wrote, "maybe you'll do better with her than you did with me." Jane struggles with regret over the son she abandoned when she realized that she was gay, and Rocksan broods over the father who left her and her family when she was a child. In fact, nearly everyone has a guilty conscience about the parental mistakes they made, or a grudge against their own bad upbringings.

This is all compelling material -- a potentially excellent HBO series in the vein of "Six Feet Under" -- but Schwartz seems overly focused on stage-managing the many interconnected subplots. As a result, the thematic and narrative connections feel both tidily convenient and, at the same time, underdeveloped. In an attempt to keep all of the elements neat and tight, she has chosen a terse prose style, made up of bite-size sentences and sentence fragments that relay most of the background in generalized thumbnail summaries. Take, for example, this description of Ethan and Cindy's struggle for custody: "The battle had been fought on Main Street. Everyone taking sides. Such ugliness. The boy so small and sweet with his green eyes and blond hair. How could two people mess up so badly?" Or this chronicling of Jane and Rocksan's past history: "George. The son. The big, festering lie that had plagued their relationship for five years, until Jane finally fessed up to giving birth then abandoning her infant son. George, the revealed secret that continued to haunt their lives like an old attic ghost that had no intention of leaving." Because Schwartz has so many strands of plot to handle, she also has a tendency to encapsulate and explain emotion rather than dramatize it.

The emotions at work here would be difficult for any writer to deal with. This is combustibly sentimental material, often dangerously close to soap-opera, and Schwartz, whose excellent first novel, Jumping the Green, was a bracing, intense exploration of sex, guilt and grief among the San Francisco art set, finds herself on less secure footing in her portrayal of these small-town folks. Many of the potentially intriguing characters have a predigested quality, and the ferocity and wit that Schwartz displayed in her first book is muted, doused by the sheer earnestness of her characters.

She clearly has compassion for these people -- there are some truly moving moments in this book. She can also write beautifully about nature, and has a underutilized knack for precise, lyrical description (the passages about beekeeping are among the book's strongest). But ultimately the novel is sketchy, overwhelmed by so many tangled webs of connection and moments of high drama that none is ever convincingly fleshed out. We are left with little psychological insight, but many homilies: "You must live your life as if it will all be gone in an instant," Angie thinks toward the end. Such truisms are surely heartfelt, but Angels Crest leaves the reader missing the acute complexity this promising writer brought to her earlier work. *

Dan Chaon's most recent book is the novel "You Remind Me of Me."