ZIONS CAUSE {1920-1950}

By Jim Peyton

Algonquin. 224 pp. $14.95

Aren't we all -- one of these days -- going to write that novel we know we have in us? At 62, Jim Peyton, a Kentucky playwright and educator, has turned out a first novel masterly enough to put all our paltry excuses and unrealized ambitions to shame.

Though one senses the influence of the masters of rural American fiction (Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson and Flannery O'Connor) throughout "Zions Cause," the mingling of tall tales, theology and tenderness is all Peyton's own as he unravels anew the ancient plot of the mysteriously begotten child in search of his true father and his own identity.

As always, the mysterious begetting occurs in the most unlikely of places. This time it is in the eccentric backwoods community of Zions Cause, Ky. Only it is not called Zions Cause until Jim, the seldom-named narrator, is conceived there. Until then, the place -- which consists of Mr. Hayes' store and the surrounding farms -- is as nameless as the narrator.

The book is full of preachers. The first one shows up at Mr. Hayes' store in August 1920 and stays just long enough to announce, "I come in the cause of Zion," build a makeshift sanctuary out of locust branches and perform a few miracles of healing. To commemorate the miracles, the townspeople build a church they call "Zions Cause," and the town inherits a name.

Nine months after the miraculous cures, Susan, the demented sister of Mr. Hayes' dying wife, gives birth to a son who looks remarkably like the long-departed preacher. In 12 episodes that cover the 30 years from the boy's conception to Mr. Hayes' death, the mysteries of life and love and hate and forgiveness and the unending battle between good and evil unfold for the reader as they unfold for the boy who relates them. Each episode is told in a chapter that both stands alone as a short story and fits like a missing piece into the puzzle that structures the novel.

Like Aristotle, Peyton seems to prefer "what is plausible and impossible to what is implausible and possible." And so the story is carried along by eccentric folks and country talk rich in anecdotes and pranks more to be enjoyed than believed. There is the wealthy and worthless Billy Gusto and his son-in-law Will Poser, who digs a dry well big enough for two rocking chairs so he can get some peace and quiet and still have company when he wants it. Then, in order to have something beautiful in his life, he tops the well with a well house so ornate that it looks like a "privy for the Queen of Sheba."

Ish Theobold gets castrated by a fish and dies brokenhearted. Big Jack Heddin goes temporarily insane after gorging himself on boiled onions laced with love potion. And the persnickety preacher Bois is appropriately transfigured and humbled when he tries to baptize the biggest woman in Zions Cause against her will.

Jr. Pease, the incorrigible prankster, entrepreneur and omnipresent foil for the overly earnest narrator, makes a hilarious habit of lighting firecrackers under the horses his enemies ride.

Here is what happens when Old Man Thompson, the vilest of the book's villains, comes after his son who has loitered too long at the store:

"Mr. Hayes could not deny it. Regardless of the fairness of it, both law and custom decreed then, and to a large extent still do, that a man had a right to govern his family as he sees fit.

" 'All right, now, boy!'

"We stood back then and let the boy move through. He did so slowly, like he might have been pulling through waist-deep water, despair in his eyes and the set of his mouth. Old Man Thompson sat motionless, watching him with that set smile again. When he was in striking distance, Old Man Thompson's hand moved like a snake, slashing him across the face with the long leather reins. But in the act he committed a serious error. The blow overcarried and caught Jr. Pease, who was standing beside the boy, on the shoulder and that broadened the question of whose business it was."

Between Jr. Pease and Mr. Hayes (who is always on the side of right and will do anything to prove it -- from blackmailing the church to stealing a railroad) Old Man Thompson gets what's coming to him.

The book is an old-fashioned comedy in which love and forgiveness win in a pitched battle with human greed and meanness. If "Zions Cause" sometimes skirts the sentimental, it never cloys. Good wins, but evil goes down swinging.

The reviewer is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland whose books include a study of the novels of Philip Roth.