By Karen Osborn

William Morrow. 273 pp. $23.95 On one dark night on a bridge that crosses the Connecticut River, three teenagers -- two brothers and the girl who lives next door -- drive out to see what's up. The older brother, David, and the girl, Kay, have dropped acid, just half a dose, someone remembers later. The younger brother, Michael, is stone sober and in a terrible mood. Some bad things happen. David and Kay walk out to the center of the bridge, embrace, then David climbs over the railing and jumps off.

Oh, well! Another set of lives shattered to bits.

The three kids have known each other forever. Kay is the daughter of Ellen, a single mom and an artist, who came to this town years ago to teach at the university. David and Michael's parents, Kevin and Jen, have taken the mother and daughter into their own "normal" lives. Kevin, too, teaches at the university. Their domestic lives have taken place against a background of seemingly Edenic simplicity: a world of gardens, wounded animals carefully tended and easygoing faculty parties held on verdant lawns. Civilization, in other words, in the midst of attractive, cradling nature.

Except that the river they live by has a mind of its own. In the summer it's warm and welcoming; in the spring it's a possible killer. It may not mean to be a killer; it's just flowing in its own imperative, which is not in any way a moral one. In the same way, when they were little, David, Kay and young Michael played as savages, painting themselves with river clay, running, shouting, screaming, building primitive shelters, beating each other up. When puberty came for them it may have looked like the end of innocence, but innocence was never in the equation.

So, a drug death at a university. This can't go unregarded or unjudged. All of the so-called civilized community, those poor humans living precariously by the river, must weigh in with an opinion, assign a meaning to what may have been a meaningless act. Because when something terrible happens, when we begin to suffer horribly, there must be a reason. It would be unbearable to think otherwise.

There is no authorial ego exercised in "The River Road." There is no obvious author, preening, trying and possibly failing to be smart. There's only an extraordinary effort to engage the American condition as we find it now, write down what happens in a given situation, or what might happen, and then adroitly slip away, leaving the reader to decide the meaning -- which has nothing to do with arcane literary allusions, but everything to do with the state of the human soul.

David, that brilliant older brother, is irrevocably gone. There must be a reason for this that goes beyond drugs. Kevin, David's father, that mild-mannered history professor, decides that Kay must have "done" it. (Michael, the little brother, voluntarily suggests that Kay actually did do it, that is, push David from the bridge.) Kevin, speaking in the first person, sounds reasonable in his arguments. Kay was always around the house, Kevin remembers; Kay was always seductive. And once he saw Kay's mom with her arms around Jen, his own wife! Kevin's world is based on "facts," and these women tear things up with their crazy emotions and sexuality. Yes, there were drugs. But Kay must have provided them. Yes, there was sex, but Kay must have been the seducer. Yes, there was death, but Kay must have pushed, killed, murdered David, because if blame can be established, a believable story told, everybody else will be off the hook in every possible way.

But tragedy and human suffering are ubiquitous, and sometimes there is no one to blame. Kevin, in a classic E.M. Forster-style "muddle," goes on blaming Kay. The rickety justice system of this small town falls in behind him. (Because isn't it right to make examples of erring youngsters who are into sex and drugs?) The town's quest for blame eventually comes to destroy the web of connections binding an entire extended family, shattering a marriage and several precious friendships.

The urge to demonize is primitive, as primitive as lust or rage or envy. The wish to be off the hook when suffering occurs is endless, eternal. Not that "innocence" changes anything. Not that it alleviates anything at all.

"The River Road" uses point of view brilliantly, moving easily from the wretched Kay to the jealous Michael to David's relentless father, eager to prosecute, eager to cast blame. The mothers can only mourn. The river can only run. Lives can only be smashed. Unspeakable suffering occurs, but for all that, the world is unspeakably beautiful. Karen Osborn should be proud of what she has done here.