THE WEIGHT OF DREAMS

By Jonis Agee

Viking. 387 pp. $24.95

This is a tale about horses and the horse business, ranchers and the ranch business. It's cluttered with extra characters; its protagonists shilly-shally, lie, cheat, steal, procrastinate and never get around to delivering important information. They act way too much like people we might know, instead of people in novels. The action is violent; horses are electrocuted, strong men pierced with pitchforks. The language is low-slung and repetitive; the phrase "outstanding warrant" clunking by on page after page, people "breathing through their mouths" over and over, sentences like "he was getting madder and madder" just sitting there on the page looking at you, the author's implicit question to the reader being: "So what? He was getting madder and madder, so what? You want me to try for something fancier? His rage rose within him? Forget it! He was getting madder and madder, and he has an outstanding warrant, and things sometimes smell so bad in this novel that people have to breathe through their mouths. Like it or lump it, pal."

Ty Bonte, 17, lives on a Nebraska ranch with his mean-as-a-snake, hard-drinking, belt-brandishing, sadistic dad. That dad is separated from Ty's mom, who up and left for reasons we'll find out later and now lives in town. She's another kind of mean; her weapons are ruffles and floor wax and church work. She hates Ty and his dad, and masks it all with narrow, pious smiles.

Ty keeps getting into trouble. He's fallen in with a bad influence, Harney Rivers, the town banker's rich son, who's a total racist, a drunk sociopath. After one fateful night and desperate crime, Harney wriggles out of trouble and rats on Ty, who is forced to flee with that "outstanding warrant" hanging over him for what he imagines will be the rest of his life.

Ty gets as far as Kansas, where he works like a dog and pinches pennies and finally, 20 years later, has put together some kind of life for himself as a horse trader. Ty's no saint. He's not above buying gear that may have been stolen from someone else, and perhaps some of his horses come from a confluence of shady circumstances, but life is hard! The author precisely conjures here the state of mind of people who work so close to the economic edge that of course they cut corners sometimes. They'd be fools if they didn't.

Sometimes Ty deals with a man named Eddie, who's a lot further down on the moral food chain of life. Eddie, a horse trainer and trader, isn't above taking insurance out on a horse, then killing it for the proceeds. At Eddie's, Ty meets Dakota, a down-on-her-luck woman who's been working the horses and having sex with Eddie just to keep a roof over her head. Dakota, in the way women do in life sometimes, I guess, manages to include herself and a mysteriously handsome colt with a shipment of other horses that Ty's come to pick up. Ty wants her to go away, but she's not going anywhere but with him.

This is a fairly long novel, and large amounts of it are taken up with accounts of the horse life. Ty and Dakota don't just go out to the barn and come back. They go out to the barn and brush the horses, braid their tails, feed them apples, put bridles on them, get them into their stalls and out of their stalls. There is a sense of the rhythm of backbreaking work. And one reason the plot moves so slowly is that every time Ty and Dakota get around to a point where they can exchange meaningful information, they're dead-tired from their hard work and have to go to sleep instead.

By coincidence, that mysterious horse that Dakota neglects to tell Ty about belongs to Harney Rivers, who strolls by the Kansas spread one day, murders the horse and disperses the rest, then vigorously punctures Ty with a pitchfork. There's nothing to do, after Ty has recovered, but go back to Nebraska to the family ranch and face three things: that outstanding warrant, the ghosts of his savage and terrible childhood, and Harney, who has inherited the town bank and is getting ready to yank the mortgage on the ranch.

Ty's father is dying, but he's just as mean as ever. Dakota stolidly takes care of him. The mean mother comes out a time or two from town. That mom hates Dakota, naturally, but Dakota won't budge. She and Ty start their round of backbreaking work again. The crime that precipitated the outstanding warrant has never been resolved. Ty's parents still can't stand him. Ty bends under the pressure, drinks, and raises hell.

I don't know about this novel! To me, it's got way too much melodrama and lines like "Now get out of here before I call the sheriff." But Ty's parents are perfectly, horribly rendered; you can't get them out of your mind. The real plot here is whether Ty, with his savage, dehumanizing past, can rise to the particular challenge of his own life and become a decent human being. There are all kinds of reasons to disapprove of "The Weight of Dreams," but in the end they don't really count, because Ty and Dakota and those godawful parents of his are so real, and so alive. You have to care about them.

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.

Upcoming in Book World

The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:

ORIGINS OF THE BILL OF RIGHTS, by Leonard W. Levy. Reviewed by M.N.S. Sellers.

LIP SERVICE, by M.J. Rose. A novel about a woman redeemed by phone sex. Reviewed by Carolyn Banks.

THE FORCE OF CHARACTER: And the Lasting Life, by James Hillman. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

MOTHER OF PEARL, by Melinda Haynes. A novel about a small town sharply divided by race. Reviewed by Georgia Jones-Davis.

KILLING ME SOFTLY, by Nicci French. In this novel, a woman has an affair with her climbing guide, who is also a serial killer. Reviewed by Carolyn See.