MOTHER OF PEARL

By Melinda Haynes

Hyperion. 448 pp. $23.95

When it comes to the characters in Melinda Haynes's problematic new novel, things feel too, well, black and white. Most of the white characters--with the exceptions of 14-year-old Valuable and spunky spinster Aunt Louise--are blatantly racist, lacking imagination or intuition, mean-spirited, plain stupid, or possessing a heart as cold as a glacier. The black characters in this story for the most part display insight, wit, intelligence, grace and a lot of scatological humor. The vitality of their thoughts and passions is kept well hidden from the scrutinizing, judgmental glares of the whites.

The time is 1956, and the place is a backwater in Mississippi called Petal. Tiny though it is, Petal is divided into two distinct worlds--white Petal, though modest, is a neighborhood of decent houses surrounded by lawns that need regular trimming. The black community of Petal resides in "the quarter," a collection of lean-tos dotting two or three dusty lanes. It is not long after the legendary lynching of young Emmett Till and everyone is still tense. This is an era when blacks cannot vote, ride in the front of buses, visit public libraries, swim in public pools, stay in motels or eat alongside whites in restaurants. In Haynes's book, the segregated worlds of white Petal and black Petal will soon collide--not over a boiling civil rights issue but over another kind of issue altogether: a baby.

In the "quarter," 29-year-old Even Grade, who works a dangerous job in the local powder factory, has befriended Canaan Mosely, a man in his mid-sixties, the night janitor of the local library. Canaan has been reading book after book after his shift is finished--books on everything from birds to Sophocles. He's become a regular home-schooled scholar. Even has a lover named Judy (also referred to as "Joody"), a fortuneteller who lives in the woods by the creek.

Judy believes that the proper way to be a woman is to be connected to what she calls the "Deep Mother." "Deep Mother is six-sided. . . . Feeling, Seeing, Knowing, Smelling, Tasting. Hearing. Anything less, ain't Woman." One night she's visited by a 14-year-old white girl called Valuable Korner. Judy and Valuable share women's talk like old friends virtually all night. Judy senses trouble and fate hovering around Val like an aura. She knows what the girl does not yet know: that Valuable is newly pregnant by Jackson, not only her best friend and onetime lover but also her half brother.

The night with Judy brings profound change in the troubled, lonely teenager's life: "Valuable crossed over. One minute one place. The next, somewhere else. . . . She was to be a six-sided woman. A completion not based on her heritage, but something else." Good thing, too. Valuable's mother, Enid, is the town prostitute. Her father--well, as Enid puts it to her daughter, take your pick. Valuable's late loving grandma was the daughter of a murderous Klan member. Her only other relative is a middle-aged cousin, the muddle-headed Bea, who can't cope with much reality. Bea lives with Neva, who in her own hard-bitten, sour-tempered way, loves Valuable. Neva herself is a social outcast, being a lesbian and all, but she is as racist as the straightest, holiest roller next door. "I never had one of your race look me straight on," she comments to Judy.

Getting through this slow-paced, word-rich novel takes effort and patience. This is the country of Faulkner, not Raymond Carver. There are just way too many characters and ideas jammed into this book. Haynes introduces tantalizing themes that she never follows through on, such as Valuable's urge to write. What, finally, is the meaning of Canaan and Jackson's dreams about talking, mutilated pigs? Jackson's violent fantasies about Val never coincide with the tenderness he displays toward her. Hints that Even Grade was "still a happy man" work as a tease when in fact he seems only to get happier.

"Perfection's for God. . . . The rest of us got to get along with 'purt'near,' " Haynes writes. "Mother of Pearl" is nowhere near perfection, but there are moments--such as the hilarious courting of Aunt Louise and Valuable's wrenching childbirth scene--that feel "purt'near."