WOUNDED

By Percival Everett

Graywolf. 207 pp. $23

John Hunt, the protagonist of Percival Everett's new novel, Wounded, is above all things a careful man, and he has reason to be -- he is a black man in rural Wyoming, living on a ranch 30 miles from a small, insular, entirely white town. And he is a horse trainer, working with both unpredictable young horses and older animals that have proved themselves untrustworthy. In addition to these facts, there is the open question of his wife, now six years dead, whose fatal equestrian accident, John thinks, can be indirectly traced to the dynamics of their marriage. John is friendly and helpful, with a nice ironic wit, but as the novel begins, he is more or less closed to the idea of getting involved with those around him. Even his uncle Gus, who lives with him, is treated with manly distance -- John suspects Gus is seriously ill, but the two agree not to talk about it beyond the practical necessities of doctors' appointments and prescriptions.

John's carefulness, as well as his high degree of self-consciousness, work to make his circumstances convincing. Most good horse trainers are highly self-aware, especially of how their body language and their moods can affect the horses they are training. In Wounded, though, John's manner instantly puts the reader on the alert. Even before anything happens, it is clear that something has to happen because John is always expecting something to happen, and he is not expecting anything good.

What happens is that a young gay man is found murdered not far from town, and John's incompetent hired man is arrested for the murder. John resists being drawn into his employee's crisis, telling both himself and the sheriff that Wallace, the hired man, is almost a stranger to him, and he doesn't like him anyway.

John does what he has to -- he calls Wallace's estranged brother and reports the arrest. In the end, though, Wallace gets no help or solace from anyone and is discovered to have hanged himself in his cell. At this point, there appear to be no other suspects in the murder, and the sheriff's office pretty much gives up investigating. The land, after all, is big and empty, and the victim had been a stranger, and gay to boot. But, of course, events accelerate, and one of these is the arrival of David, the son of an old college friend of John's. David turns out to be gay, too, and his boyfriend, Robert, is not only gay, he's militant. When the two young men join in a gay pride rally in the town to protest the killing, Robert makes a point of flaunting his homosexuality, attracting the notice of what John calls "redneck" elements.

Everett's short novel moves quickly from incident to incident, sketching in events and characters with admirable eloquence. It demonstrates that the essence of suspense in a novel is not that the reader does not know what will happen but that the reader knows perfectly well what will happen and wonders only how it will happen and when.

Like other highly plotted novels, Wounded is a puzzle, and the solution to the puzzle is visible in the distance. For one thing, the only real suspects, the rednecks in their BMW, appear early on, and their hate crimes proliferate as the plot unfolds. What is at issue, then, is not plot, but theme -- how are the murderous impulses of a certain portion of the American populace, who are racist, homophobic, aggressive and well-armed, to be dealt with? Can black horse trainers and Native American cattle ranchers and women and gay guys passing through simply keep to themselves? They can't depend on the authorities for protection, as Everett's sheriff demonstrates. Given the aggression of the rednecks, there can be no separate peace, but can there be a separate justice?

I wish I could say that Everett answers this question to my satisfaction. Events transpire so that justice is done and the just get away with it -- the novel's great unexplored moral issue. John Hunt wears the white cowboy hat. He is like the Gary Cooper figure in "High Noon," wanting only to be left alone, finally being forced to act. His uncle is a good man (and a good cook), and his former buddy, David's father, feels remorse for not accepting his son's homosexuality. The good people remain good. A sign of their goodness is their self-doubt, but the plot is too complex and the novel too short for the larger moral and political issues to be resolved. For one thing, the townspeople are seen only in passing, and what they feel about John, the murder, David and the rednecks can only be inferred. A disappointment, to me, is that John's life as a horse trainer is never quite integrated into his way of addressing the killing and other events. Something illuminating might have come from such an integration.

Wounded is a briskly written novel by an author of ready intelligence and considerable wit who is not shy about taking on complicated issues. I only wish he'd given the whole thing a hundred more pages. *

Jane Smiley is the author of many novels and works of nonfiction. She often writes about horses and horse training.