OUT OF SEASON

By Robert Bausch

Harcourt. 367 pp. $24

In the fictional terrain of Robert Bausch, family ties lash characters together even as they struggle. It is a place where the heart aches, where it is hard to breathe and where the onset of tears is as redemptive as prayer. It is a world where men are strong but inarticulate, capable of a hesitant, mumbled language comprehended only by the women who love them. They think decent enough thoughts that are clear in their own minds but difficult to express. So they rage and weep and cling to deep secrets, dancing around loved ones like tired boxers, waiting for the small explosions that will rock them back to their senses. In his new novel, Out of Season, Bausch revisits this rich landscape, unearthing simple nuggets of truth sifted through the rusty screen of broken lives.

The story takes place in Columbia Beach, a faded resort town on the Potomac River in Virginia, where "one can stand ankle deep in the water and look out over the blue river as though it is an ocean." Years ago the town had been prosperous, full of hotels, summer rentals and tourists crowding the sandy beaches and boardwalk, but once the state shut down the slot machines, the revelers all but disappeared, and the town "settled into a sort of permanent paralysis."

A few hearty souls hang on and eke out a living, tenacious as ticks. Among the stalwarts are Jack Clary, who runs the hotel with his wife, Judy, and Vince McDole, the pitiful gas station owner whose quarrel with Cecil Edwards, the most magnetic and menacing of the town's inhabitants, bookends the story. Cecil, a huge, bullying loner, looms over Columbia Beach as threatening as a thundercloud, and he spins this story as effortlessly as he does the Ferris wheel at the edge of town.

During the last gasps of October warmth, David Caldwell, the sheriff of Dahlgren County, arrives in Columbia Beach to reopen the jail that had closed long ago. At the same time, he is here to reunite with his 20-year-old son, Todd, who has finished serving five years in a juvenile correction facility for the death of his younger brother. The father still grieves, blaming Todd for the action that ruined their family, and Todd sulks in angry confusion, knowing his father cannot accept that the death was accidental. They haven't seen each other in the two years since Todd was released, and this lost time has only weakened the fragile bond between them. The other newcomer in town is Lindsey Hunter, a young woman who has come in search of her biological mother, only to find her half-brother, Cecil Edwards, instead. It is Lindsey who gains access to the closed, troubled worlds of both Cecil and Todd. Although she comes to love them both, only one can be saved. As the townsmen conspire against Cecil like Old West vigilantes, these stories warp and collide.

Bausch is expert at charting the physical world around his characters. He is particularly good at centering the reader in his chosen surroundings, be it the hills of Crawford, Va., as he did in The Gypsy Man, or this dying resort "that looked like something out of a haunted and disastrous future." He brings us to a place, scarred and real, where cowards draw guns out of foolishness and fear and where a father comes to view the son he once loved as a stranger.

The book is not without problems. For a story packed with such emotional freight, the characters themselves appear somewhat slender. Todd's five years in detention must have been horrific for a 13-year-old, but we get too little about his incarceration and the impact of that environment on his young life. Cecil, for all his strength, is strangely weightless: We see the hardened man he has become without experiencing enough of the life he lived. And Bausch, so good with female characters in his previous novels, such as the too patient Elizabeth in A Hole in the Earth and the life-shattered Penny Bone in The Gypsy Man, leaves us wanting to know more of the faith and calamities that define Lindsey Hunter. Although every life should be infused with mystery, this book often leaves us with vapors instead of smoke.

That aside, the novel is held together by the power of the events unfolded and the surprises we encounter. When Cecil collapses at the feet of the men who have come to challenge him, and when David Caldwell realizes he can love his son, Bausch delivers fully charged moments. His characters may not always be admirable or brave, but they remain good company. Their imperfections make them human, and that is a testament to this writer's craft. *

Bruce Murkoff is the author of the novel "Waterborne."