Like Dickinson's impressive debut, Waltz in Marathon (1983), this uneven yet generously talented second novel is set, with textured assurance, in a small midwestern town: here it's Mozart, Wisconsin, a college town of no special distinction. But Mozart is where unemployed sportswriter Robert Cigar, 27, now lives--sharing a house with the family of Robert's bygone college professor Ben Ladysmith, recently deceased. Ben, you see, was killed--and his youngest son Duke was maimed--when a plane landed on the local lake one night while father and son were boating. Ben's body was never recovered, however; Robert has been taking frequent, futile dives into Oblong Lake ever since, searching for Ben's remains; the Ladysmith family--widow Ethel, swimmer-daughter Olive (Robert's casual lover), baseball-pitcher son Buzz, crippled Duke--has been impressed with Robert's persistent faith, adopting him as an ever-more-permanent temporary boarder. So Robert, who is more than a little feckless (not unlike his father Dave, a failed small-businessman), finds unprecedented comfort with the Ladysmith family--even though he knows that this situation must eventually end: to prolong the idyll, he avoids getting another newspaper job (his previous paper has folded), going to work in a local sporting-goods store (where he even rises to the position of manager). And meanwhile, in juxtaposition with Robert's cultivation of family-like normalcy in the midst of eccentricity, novelist Dickinson also offers a disturbing display of the secrets of Ben Ladysmith's life--his adulteries and irresponsibilities, his allegorical tale of crows, his desperate willfulness about his family. Unfortunately, however, these two themes--the brightness of Robert's quest, the darkness of Ben's past--don't come together in a successful blending or counterpoint: Ben, a character with as much potential as the morally ambivalent Harry Waltz (Waltz in Marathon), remains only an offstage presence, a submerged metaphor (literally and otherwise); Robert, along with most of the Ladysmith family, is a bit too plainly, soothingly, almost dreamily likable. (Throughout, in fact, Dickinson's consoling lyricism tips too far over into sentimentality--without the sharp edges that so shrewdly balanced the charm in Waltz in Marathon.) Still, scene by scene, this is strong, original work by one of American fiction's most promising talents, even if the novel as a whole becomes more than a little desultory and dullish.