By Rudy Wilson

Knopf. 178 pp. $15.95

Frankly, I've never before read anything quite like "The Red Truck," a strange, hallucinatory first novel by Rudy Wilson. At times incoherent and exasperating, occasionally compelling, it reads something like a cross between Flannery O'Connor and Shirley MacLaine, though the quality of the prose itself is closer to the former than to the latter.

Narrated by two Mississippi youngsters, Billy-Billy Jump and Teddianne Sayers, the novel chronicles their separate lower-middle-class childhoods and eventual meeting in the small town of Cuba, Miss., in 1968. What makes the novel so unusual is its suggestion that Billy-Billy and Teddianne have known each other in another life and that their present relationship is simply the completion of a cycle.

Wilson attempts to point the reader toward this idea from the novel's first page, on which Billy-Billy speaks of a recurring dream: "I had only one friend, a little girl, I knew only in dreams ... I dreamt of her even before she was born." The night of her birth, Billy-Billy thinks, "She's born ... She's here" and tells us, "Years later I knew her as Teddianne."

When we arrive at the chapters in which Teddianne describes her own childhood, we find that indeed the two have an eerily unusual amount in common, not the least of which is a mysterious fascination with the Civil War. Both have experienced the deaths of siblings: Billy-Billy's brother has died in an abandoned refrigerator into which the two brothers had crawled, while Teddianne's brother has fallen from a tree, the same tree from which she later falls, hanging suspended in midair before she hits the ground. Both have strong interest in religion and a sense that they are separated from other people by something unknown. Teddianne has a vision of Jesus as "a red truck," a vision that is never elaborated and which disappears after a one-page chapter. When these two mirrors meet, it is not surprising that the attraction between them is instant and obsessive, so much so that their lovemaking seems a kind of auto-eroticism.

The explanation for this is meant to lie somewhere in the chapters that separate the two narrators' retelling of their childhoods, chapters that tell a Civil War story. A retarded boy witnesses the brutal murders of his mother and brother in Maryland and later discovers the body of his father on the battleground at Antietam, dumped in a grave with the body of a young woman.

The relationship of this story to Billy-Billy and Teddianne is hinted in the novel's final chapters, in which the two travel to Billy-Billy's home town and have a hallucinatory encounter with his old friend Suzanne and her retarded brother, but the relationship remains hopelessly garbled.

Who are Billy-Billy and Teddianne, of whom are they the reincarnations from Civil War days? Ultimately, "The Red Truck" sinks under the weight of its thesis, its heavy-handed symbols and Wilson's inability to make them cohere, to make us willingly suspend our disbelief. Too many things go unexplained. When his two young characters are recalling their childhoods, however, Wilson reveals himself as a prose stylist of genuine gifts; perhaps next time he can create characters and plot to match.

The reviewer is a poet who teaches at Rice University.