Bambara's get-right-into-it, media res approach has served her stories well (Gorilla My Love, The Seabirds Are Still Alive); after all, stories have unmistakable on-and-off switches. But in her first novel, the immediate dunking-down of the reader into a whirling broth--of voices, images, contrasting traditions, comedies, and knowledges--works less certainly. Central to the meld is Velma Henry, a black woman who has just failed as a suicide and now is sitting on a stool in the local hospital of a small Southern town, Clayborne, being ministered to by Minnie Ransom, a local healer (""I can feel, sweetheart, that you're not quite ready to dump the shit. . .""). And Velma is married to Obie, who's unfaithful and up to something sneaky with his 7 Arts Academy, a hub of confused militancy that contrasts with the town's Southwest Community Infirmary, which since 1871 has produced for the largely black town ""an alarming number of change agents."" Bambara has a fine fix on the intertwined cultures of a small black Southern town, serving up contrasts with apparent impartiality: sometimes she seems to favor the older people like Minnie (a true revolutionary), yet the younger people, political and very Seventies, do chatter on with some real joy. Also impressive: Bambara's sheer prose velocity and her trombone-like slides along different notes of character. But the uncommitted observation and the jump-cut narration result in maximum confusion and minimum involvement, so be girded for a very breathy book, eye-and ear-boggling and often far from clear--or caring to be.