After a long hiatus (Brothers, 1975), Nelson makes an impressive return with a coming-of-age novel whose familiar elements are given a fresh new gloss. For 10 years Bud, the 14-year-old narrator, has been living in the woods, somewhere in the South, with his father, Sailor, and their two mules, cutting trees and selling the timber. Sailor, a self-reliant, all-American drifter, let Bud's Indian mother die alone in childbirth, then plucked Bud from his surrogate parents: ""I figured I owed you."" Now Bud, yearning to ""live normal,"" feels ready to make it on his own. There is a storm; Bud is struck by lightning; the mules disappear. Bud and his father walk to town, where Sailor follows his routine (a poker game, a bender, the cathouse) while Bud looks for work, fends off the fluttery hotel manager, and loses his virginity to Hominy, a drugstore waitress trying to escape the clutches of her half. brother Spoon, one of the ""river rats,"" Bud's name for a family of backwoods bootleggers (Southern stereotypes, and the only false note here). Bud starts to notice things--that Hominy has a hard time liking herself, that Sailor is letting the booze destroy him; and he becomes steadily more assertive, helping retrieve their stolen mules from the river rats and then, as Sailor crumbles, taking charge at the mule-pulling contest, the story's gripping climax. They win the contest, but victory is short-lived; the river rats hamstring the mules. Sailor kills Spoon, and then his own body quits on him; Bud buries him in the woods. Overall, Nelson skillfully avoids the traps of the rite-of-passage novel; his writing is never cloying or portentous, and his central relationships are taut and true.