Jay Mitchell is a dropout from Duke, he's the impotent husband of red-haired Melissa, he's an unhappy soldier living off-base at Fort Benning, Georgia; and Jay hangs himself--in an opening suicide chapter here that's as vividly chilling as any we can recall. Very sick, Jay releases himself, but those he leaves behind are still bound--not in guilt, which is an emotion that hasn't had time to take shape for them yet, but in flailing hate and incomprehension. There's Merle (Jay's ""Dad""), Merle's wife Audrey, Melissa--and Craig, Jay's adoring 14-year-old brother. Merle in particular is the one we watch: a fierce, inarticulate, whoring, drinking, certainly pathological and, perhaps, bad man. After throwing his fist through a glass door after news of Jay's death, Merle deliberately batters the healing hand with a hammer handle, punishing the world by injuring himself irreparably and by virtually howling that he'll never work again (he's a carpenter). And then Merle takes off to find Melissa, whom he blames for his son's suicide. No one is spared the horror that Merle insists on spreading: the women, Melissa and Audrey, try (not successfully) to get out of his way. Only Craig--who, like Merle, searches for a reason why Jay did it--still chases Dad, looking for faith, for answers. . . . This first novel is sometimes almost too hard to take, and it is bound to bring Flynt comparisons to Flannery O'Connor--the brutally toneless modern Southern setting, the hard fixity of the narrative, the claustrophobic distress. But she suggests even more the early John O'Hara of Appointment in Samarra: depressing exactitude, a brave eye, perhaps sentiment beneath. If the book has a flaw it's the length: just slightly too long. Still, attenuated or not, it's true and ugly as sin--and very, very impressive.