Unlike his fictionalized treatment of John Reed (The Bohemians, 1982), Cheuse's latest biographical novel lightly disguises its main characters, allowing for more invention, little of which enhances an otherwise forced and ponderous account of a great American artist. If Ava Boldin's life differs from Georgia O'Keeffe's in some of its particulars, her work, as described by Cheuse, mirrors stroke-for-stroke O'Keeffe's popular canvases. Cheuse organizes Ava's life as an ongoing search for light, culminating in the bleached-out landscape of Sante Fe, New Mexico. Her mother dead at her birth, and her father thus driven to drink, young Ava finds nurturing from her beloved older brother and a stepmother who encourages her talent. Independent and feisty early on, she studies in Chicago, where she develops a wild passion for her earthy model, a Polish beauty from the ghetto. After teaching stints in South Carolina and Texas, Ava moves to New York and eventually marries a prominent photographer and gallery owner twice her age. Al. bert Stigmar (read Alfred Stieglitz), her ""father husband second brother friend,"" supports her work enthusiastically and introduces her to his bohemian circle. But marital bliss is marred by Ava's increasingly long stays out West, where ""Stig"" refuses to join her, allowing him to develop his passion for their Irish maid, a liaison that produces a son Ava will later take under her wing. Conceived as an oral biography of sorts, this exercise in voices fails to distinguish well the various narrators, though the maid says ""ain't"" a lot. Similarly, Cheuse demonstrates little feel for the times and places covered in his sprawling story. Though mostly about Ava's quest for a distinctly ""American light,"" the novel also explores ""the mysteries of family"" in its rather unimaginative flame narrative. Stig's bastard son, a talented but uneducated sculptor, arrives at Ava's with his girlfriend Amy, a Bennington student intent on shaping Ava's life in prose. Cameos by real-life Sherwood Anderson and Stanley Edgar Hyman, among others, occasion some gratuitously sordid anecdotes. Stilted, grandiose dialogue (""one day I'll be famous. . .and I'll regret nothing"") is typical of the overall awkwardness. Neither biography nor pure fiction, it's a dispiriting hybrid.