THE GRACE THAT KEEPS THIS WORLD

By Tom Bailey

Shaye Areheart. 276 pp. $24

Tom Bailey drew the climax of his debut novel from a news report he heard in 1991 about a grisly incident in upstate New York, but The Grace That Keeps This World sounds more like some modern-day version of a Greek tragedy. With a chorus of narrators, his story about a family in the Adirondacks during the days leading up to hunting season moves slowly and beautifully toward an indelible disaster.

Gary Hazen, the patriarch at the center of this emotionally powerful tale, is a hardworking, self-righteous man who returned from Vietnam determined to live a simple, uncluttered life in Lost Lake, N.Y. He and his high-school sweetheart have raised their two boys close to the land. He makes a little money as a private forester of 40,000 acres, but most of what the family needs each year they manage to wrest from nature before winter starts their annual battle for survival.

This year, though, the Hazens are threatened by new, internal challenges common to any family. Gary's sons, 19 and 26, need to grow up; they need to break away from his sense of how they should live. That would be easier for everyone if he weren't so impressed by his own rough-hewn values. To Gary, laziness and messiness -- physical or moral -- are intolerable sins. The elder son, Gary David, is a model of quiet devotion and obedience, but surely he's too old to be climbing out of his bedroom window to see a woman his father doesn't like. His younger son, Kevin -- the first in the family to go to college -- has the nerve to resist more openly, but under his father's criticisms (and fists), he can't build much confidence. Their struggle for independence comes to a head when Kevin's vegetarian girlfriend insists he give up hunting, the lifeblood of his father's existence.

Bailey tells this story in chapters that rotate through many narrators, some only tangentially related to the Hazens. It's a technique that can slow down the novel and blur its focus, but providing such a full picture of the town allows us to feel the shock of the horrible tragedy that finally reverberates through this community. Still, the best sections are narrated by members of the Hazen family and by an omniscient voice that describes the younger son as he struggles to carve out his own life. Here, Bailey demonstrates profound sympathy for the boy's conflicted feelings toward his father and for the father's desperation to pass down values his children should discover on their own. His wife, Susan, knows this -- knows her husband is too severe, knows her sons need to act their age -- but she also knows they all love each other more than they can say.

If the novel has a flaw, it's that Bailey writes too beautifully for some of these narrators to sound believable. For instance, he wants Gary to be a hard, unsophisticated man, the kind of guy who's skeptical of college learning and refers to New York City with a sneer, but when he comes home one night, he says, "I find Susan standing in the kitchen windows before the sink. Underneath the bright lights I see her clear as day -- it's as if she were standing on a stage and I was watching, standing back in shadowed wings behind the dark audience. She's facing toward me, bowed a bit as she works washing at the sink, as if she is saying some silent prayer." Lovely, yes, but too often the various narrators in this backwater town rise to speak with that poetic elegance, dropping their own individuality to assume the well-crafted voice of a college English professor who writes award-winning short stories. (Bailey teaches at Susquehanna University in Harrisburg, Penn., and was selected for inclusion in a Pushcart Prize Anthology in 2000.)

Strangely, after staring at these people so intensely during the days leading up to deer season, Bailey blinks at the moment of crisis, a structural decision that emphasizes the Greek nature of this tragedy. (Medea, remember, murders her children between scenes; Oedipus pokes out his eyes off stage.) There's no doubting that Bailey ruminated over how best to handle this moment because The Grace That Keeps This World is his second treatment of this story; it's a much-expanded version of "Snow Dreams," which he published in DoubleTake magazine in 1999. Placing the disaster in a gap between chapters, though, is a risky choice; some readers are bound to feel the book can't afford to give up its most dramatic moment, but I suspect Bailey knew that the unspeakable tragedy that finally shatters this family would be more stirring as a silhouette than in color. This is, after all, a story about a man forced to expand his moral imagination, and in the end it inspires the same sympathy from us. *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.