A carefully wrought take on death, love, and other profundities in a small town tries but fails to move or matter. In structure and language, McGhee's debut is more a prose portrait than a conventional novel. Various figures mourning the death of one man, Starr Williams, express their memories and responses to his death in evocative fragments--fragments that, rather than a sustained narrative, cumulatively work to create an elegiac mood of healing and acceptance. When 30-year-old Start dies trying to save Johnny, a retarded boy (and his unacknowledged son), from an oncoming track, the people who've loved Starr react to his death in different ways. Crystal, Johnny's waitress mother, who saw the accident from the diner where she works, is the most philosophical about Starr's death--but then he'd moved out of her life 12 years earlier when he left her pregnant and went off with Lucia, whom he later married. Crystal gave birth to Johnny alone in her trailer and has passed him off as her nephew. Lucia, meanwhile, not only mourns Start but also her parents, who were killed when she was three; Tim, Starr's art-teacher father who has some bittersweet secrets of his own, is still grieving for his wife Georgia, who died in a car crash on a nearby mountain road a few years back; and nine-year-old Mallie, Start and Lucia's daughter, overly imaginative and obsessed with ritual, believes its her fault he died because she failed to hug him that day. She hides Starr's ashes, keeps lists about him, and, desperately believing in reincarnation, on a visit to China with Tim looks for Start in every Chinese baby she sees. As the months pass, secrets are shared, hurts forgiven, and life without Start, even for Mallie, becomes more bearable. Less-than-credible characters--Starr being the most unconvincing--remember and forgive in anodyne ways in a debut that, for all its evocations of feeling, remains emotionally dry-eyed.