Seventeen interconnected stories, most of them narrated by a white woman who looks back on her childhood, youth, and a doomed love affair with a black boyfriend in her small Ohio town. Even as a child, Loretta was attracted to the town's black ghetto--chaotic and interesting--in those cherished glimpses from the family car. Loretta's father, a gentle, hard-working insurance salesman (who could at times show his mettle) was disgustingly passive in front of mother, who was restless and bitter over a lost singing career; like the other ""charmless mothers,"" she moved through days of hated housewifery ""on low voltage."" A few stories here highlight brief flickers of communication between Loretta and her parents, mainly in silences, even after Mother's sad, comic comeuppances. Loretta then moves into adolescence with regret: there are betrayals from former pals who ""defect into puberty""; a ""perfect"" cousin tattles; and a would-be seducer robs Loretta forever of a sense of pristine joy --as when she has her first sight of the ocean. There are black boyfriends (always the lure of the forbidden) that turn aside, but then there's also Luther, handsome, and magnetic. He's the son of widowed Annie, who lives on a subsistence base of love, and the brother of Netty, who struggles to support her child but still dances the night away. Loretta is drawn to Annie's warmth. As the affair deepens, Luther feels a promise of ""vague glory,"" even within the ghetto where he's ""already begun to die,"" and Loretta feels the reality of love. But a pregnancy follows, and Luther will later marry Ellen--the town's first black homecoming queen, reared for better things. Ellen's life, though, tossed on society's mindless cruelties, is as blighted and stranded as the other lives here; ""like some crazy puzzle that's cut wrong and can't be put back together."" Although the characters do thin a bit with message, these are nonetheless bright, loamy tales with a bite.