Set on a Montana cattle-ranch owned by an absentee-owner, Nelson's carefully-done first novel has a firmness of place and sympathy that's highly promising. The life is very hard, the ranchhands misfits--yet Nelson invests all of them with the shading that makes them plausible, even attractive. Carl Murcer, the foreman, takes vet-like care of the stock while suffering, at a remove, from the mental instability of his young wife Dee Ann, from whom he's separated. Craig Foley, one of the hands, is an ex-con for whom nothing has ever gone quite right--until he's thrown into contact with Lissa Harrelson, the resident manager's dissatisfied wife. And if the rest of the ranch crew is more loosely lighted--a good party scene constellates them effectively--all of them seem properly atomic, living at the edge of nowhere as they are. Still, it has to be said that nothing really quite coheres yet for novelist Nelson: the spills of incident and characters here are not different enough from each other, too gray-on-gray--and the result is a book that's as palpable as a gravel path underfoot but one that can't hold a solid print. A near-miss, then, with clear indications of fully successful novels to come.