The tiny, fading artists' colony called Shank, in Appalachian Georgia, is more caste-conscious than a N.Y.C. headwaiter: there are majors, minors, nobodies, and tourists, depending on length of stay, degree of fame and measure of cool. Painters Jim and Elsie Braddock are near-majors; artist's model Missy is an achingly self-conscious striver who sees her affair with Jim as a step to major status. Meanwhile, the cabin next to the Braddocks has been rented by John Brown, a recluse whose face is covered by a mototcycle helmet on his rare excursions into town. Jim's visits to him for Scrabble and conversation take an exotic form when John confesses, in marijuana looseness, that he possesses a Gift that makes women fall at his feet after seeing him twice. Passed on to him, at terrible price, by his mentor Paul Ganieri, the Gift has caused murder, a string of suicides, and his life on the run from more of the same. Jim's skepticism, not to say disbelief, is soon tempered by actuality--and his attempt to turn the Gift to his own advantage ends in savage irony. The prolific author (Seance on a Wet Afternoon) has a fanciful, original way with phrase (sometimes overreaching) and plot, giving his story the air of an astringent fairy tale. Different and diverting.