By Robert Bausch

Harcourt. 495 pp. $25

Is it biology that makes one human being a hero and another a coward? When a woman rescues a stranger from a burning building, is she acting out of free will or simply obeying the hard-wired dictates of her genes? If our natures are genetically predetermined, of what use are efforts to nurture us toward other behaviors? Are human minds blank slates at birth, awaiting the imprint of abstract qualities such as intelligence, conscience and compassion?

Hard wires and blank slates, nature vs. nurture -- these are concepts we may expect to find in a discussion of sociobiology or evolutionary studies, the contentious turf long patrolled by such well-known and controversial theorists as E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker and the late Stephen Jay Gould. They are not the kinds of ideas one normally associates with novels such as Robert Bausch's "The Gypsy Man," an affecting tale set in a tiny Virginia town on the eve of the civil rights revolution.

We can blame their presence on Henry Gault, the most complicated of the novel's many narrators, and not just because he's a self-styled philosopher fond of contemplating such things. His actions figure in, too: As founder of the first private school in Crawford, he aims to uplift his benighted neighbors through the saving grace of education. Given Henry's outlook, it's not surprising that even his wife's description of him contains the jargon of behavioral science. He is, says Myra Gault, a "curious amalgam of logic and imagination, of cognition and intuition."

Educated outsiders both, the Gaults claim to love their fellow residents but prove rarely capable of regarding them without some degree of condescension. They often come across as overzealous anthropologists who get everything wrong about the natives they have set out to observe. For Henry, Crawford is a social laboratory "where provincial ignorance flourishes and gives forth a kind of charm that passes for country wisdom."

Henry is especially proud that he admitted his first black student a full year before the Supreme Court decided in favor of desegregated schools. Unfortunately, that student, 9-year-old Terry Landon, soon vanished and was never seen alive again. Some of the townsfolk see Terry's disappearance as a symptom of the racial difficulties emerging across the nation; others, such as Penny Bone, the Gaults' former student and another of the novel's narrators, prefer to accuse the Gypsy Man, a legendary creature who allegedly swoops into Crawford from time to time and makes off with a child. For Myra, Penny's stubborn adherence to superstition isn't hard-wired -- but it might as well be. "If people think one way long enough, it's like nature," she says, "an opinion can take on the vigor and energy of genetics."

Penny has taken refuge in folklore because she misses her husband. John Bone has been in prison for six years when the novel begins, serving a 20-year sentence for killing Denise Walton, a black girl who was walking along the side of the road when John hurled a beer bottle from a speeding car. It was an accident, but John readily acknowledged his guilt and accepted his punishment. Scion of a tragically dysfunctional family, John seems to regard suffering as his birthright. Wasting away in his jail cell, he endures by relying on "a kind of dumb animal resolve to blink and squint my way through all experience, like something driven by genetics alone." This talk of genetics strikes me as unlikely language from the unschooled John, although his musing on the role of heredity in his plight seems entirely reasonable.

John and Henry come together when the local sheriff begins to suspect that John is responsible for Terry Landon's disappearance. Henry, who is a lawyer as well as an educator, advises John to plead guilty even though he knows his client is innocent. He suggests that John will get a lighter sentence this way. John, exhibiting that "provincial ignorance" that so troubles Henry, is stuck on the biblical notion that the truth shall set him free. Preoccupied with holding together his own rickety deceptions, Henry fails to recognize that John cannot lie because it is not in his nature to do so. The lawyer's various appeals to logic and common sense -- his "nurturing," if you will -- fail to dampen John's fundamental inclination toward honesty. The encounter between the two men is rich with dramatic irony, a perfect lead-in to the novel's violent, satisfying climax.

The Gaults and the Bones are surrounded by a number of expertly drawn supporting characters. Bausch apparently loved all these colorful personalities so much that he wanted to give each his moment in the spotlight, but he allows too many of them a chance at narration. His well-organized plot moves smoothly and unpredictably toward the solution of Terry Landon's vanishing; removing a few extraneous personal perspectives would not have done it any appreciable harm. It may seem that complete enjoyment of "The Gypsy Man" requires a willingness to believe that Southern authorities could become so agitated over the deaths of two black children -- a substantial leap in the age of Emmett Till. But we're talking fiction, after all -- elaborate lies that Bausch tells with consummate style.