SHIFTING THROUGH NEUTRAL

By Bridgett M. Davis

Amistad. 305 pp. $23.95

In "Shifting Through Neutral" Bridgett M. Davis has written a beautifully rendered first novel that captures the complications of children caught between discontented parents with secret lives. On the surface, it is a coming-of-age story, in that we watch the protagonist, Rae Dodson, grow from girl to young adult. But of all the characters Rae seems the most self-contained. It's the adults around her who can't seem to find their way, whose false dreams and smoldering regrets leave Rae pulled in different directions. Like any child, she wants love from both her mother and father but early on learns to choose sides. Ultimately, she chooses her father.

Both parents suffer from debilitating maladies -- the mother from chronic depression, the father from dangerously high blood pressure and chronic migraines that drive him to rely on prescription painkillers. While their relationship begins promisingly -- slow dances to Sam Cooke, card parties and scenic drives -- it undergoes a fatal strain within months of their marriage.

"My parents' first baby was born premature and stillborn, the fetus falling amid gushing blood in the toilet," Rae writes. "They dug a grave for him in the backyard, beneath the apple tree. That misfortune was like a pothole on a dark road. An old clunker could charge right through it, but a new car, its axle untested, never rides the same again."

Rae's older half-sister, Kimmie, provides a kind of safe harbor in the war zone of the family house, but Kimmie is sent to live in Louisiana with her biological father, with whom Rae's mother maintains a not-so-discreet love affair. Shortly thereafter Rae's father sneaks off in the early morning to live with another woman, with whom he is in love, only to return three days later.

Eventually, Rae's world splits into two domains. Upstairs, her very removed mother languishes in a haze of Valium and Stevie Wonder records, with rare moments of lucidity. Downstairs in his den, her father dotes on her. He is her primary caregiver, and she is his. They eat together and watch TV together. She places cold compresses on his head when the pain comes. He offers her his broad back as a comforting pillow at night.

"Shifting" is not your typical breezy summer read. With its constant drum of tragic accidents and blues-filled relationships, it feels more like something for autumn or winter, when leaves fall off trees and death seems natural and inevitable. Death -- actual and metaphoric -- and abandonment are themes throughout. Even the father's beloved Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme dies following a fairly harmless fender bender.

Davis's narrative style is readable, and her characters well thought out, but the novel's tone is depressing. What makes "Shifting" compelling nonetheless is the tenderness between Rae and her father, JD. Rarely do we come across such a loving portrait of father and daughter, particularly in African American literature, where the absentee father is a standard character.

Davis also excels at including the little details that mark a particular era and place. Her Detroit is a city of cars and music and riots, motoring and grooving. When Kimmie returns years later, she's a hip, stylish teenager with day-of-the-week panties and Native American jewelry. Rae and JD laugh at Flip Wilson in drag and eat Shake'n Bake chicken and Beans 'N Fixin's. And when her father is freshly showered and shaved, he smells like a mixture of Old Spice, Vaseline and Jergens lotion.

With so many leavings and goings in her life, Rae learns to rely on her father -- and her well-honed driving skills, perfected at her job as a test driver for General Motors. Her first car accident, a minor rear-end collision, opens a floodgate of trapped tears and buried emotions, and she finds herself finally giving in to the ebb and flow of life.

This book is much like normal life. No one's ship ever really comes in. Instead people make do and make time and make decisions that seem right at the moment but always have unforeseen consequences. There is no perfect happiness in "Shifting Through Neutral," just a gnawing dissatisfaction interrupted by moments of deep pain and of real, if fleeting, joy.