By Michael Doane

Knopf. 257 pp. $19.95END NOTES

Roadside Business is any American rest stop, the standard clump of gas pumps, shacks and trailers just off the interstate, where travelers stop to refuel before moving on. Set down on the fringes of Utah's Escalante Desert, "Roadside Business" is much more. Vance Ravel grew up here. He's come back to recover.

Dropout, sometime mystic and unwilling focus of a dying religious cult, the Er, Vance torched his house and fled three years ago, leaving his ex-wife and child. "Madness has its own skewed chronology, and he can't remember the details."

His mother, Mircea, still lives here in the hope that Vance's father, Jack, will be miraculously restored to her, and in ways that become clear as the story unfolds, Vance is drawn by that same faith.

A technician assigned to observe A-bomb testing in the 1950s, Marine Sgt. Jack Ravel died at the nearby desert test site, under circumstances that remain mysterious until late in the novel when Vance is ready to come to terms with them.

Michael Doane is playing a fascinating narrative game in his remarkable third novel, withholding details -- about Jack's death, about the fanatic Er -- to maintain suspense. Vance Ravel's progress is a journey of discovery. Shuttling back and forth in time and space, Doane draws both Ravels, father and son, in such deft, urgent prose that their stories seem to coexist, taking on a life that goes on long after the reader has put down the novel.

Ravel blames his own dislocation on his father: "Not his dying but the way he had died, walking into absolute light like that and not leaving behind any word of why or what he knew. Ravel always assumed his father had seen something undeniable and was heading for those curtains of light with a given purpose, a golden certitude." He has put his father at the center of his own mythology.

The late Jack Ravel is pragmatic by comparison. He puts on the uniform and does the job and goes every year to the reunion of the 0+2.2 Club, a dwindling group named for its distance from Ground Zero at the time of detonation.

"For some time {Sgt.} Ravel has felt himself at the mercy of pencil scratchings on clipboards, serpentine screen blips, needle reading, valances, and space/exposure algorithms. They are still waiting for the last dit and dot of the immaculate coupling of fission and fusion, Teller's promised clean bomb, something they can set off and admire from close in, without needing to wash their hands and face and genitals afterwards."

Intercut with the stories of father and son is the progress of the Er, hippies, drifters and burnouts who build a religion around Vance because his father "walked into the light." Obsessed, needy, so demanding that they become threatening, the Er intrude on Vance's desert retreat.

"Wherever you go, you take your terror with you, your own smell, the rotten seeds of your next failure. Ravel was not a shaman but no one knew the difference, and what became, for all of them, a blind kind of faith in him might only have been blindness pure and simple."

Ravel reflects on what drives them: "There are, in the end, only two religions. ... In the first one, you learn the rules, the chants, and the mythology and then you hit other people with sharp sticks until they've learned what you have. In the other, you make up your own mythology and then sit smugly on your haunches, and stare into the spaces of it, calling those spaces the mystery." His is the latter.

The outlines of father's and son's stories blur and fuse as Jack reports for duty for the last time and Ravel reads death threats in the painted stones the Er have left. Before he can disarm the Er, Vance has to disassemble his own myth. He needs to accept the truth about his father's walk into the light so he can go forward.

Tracing Vance's gradual discoveries, Doane draws the reader into an exploration of the nature and origins of faith and the great and terrible responsibility that comes with human inventions, whether technical or ideological. Whatever we create takes on a life of its own, the novel tells us. Once we have brought something into being, there is no walking away from it.

Tense, intelligent and provocative, "Six Miles to Roadside Business" is a delight and a marvel.

The reviewer's novels include "Captain Grownup," "The Ballad of T. Rantula" and "Catholic Girls."