Take the cutesy hipness of certain New Yorker story-writers, add on a gloss of Country-and-Western sentimentality, drop in chunks of pseudo-poetic prose--and you'll have some idea of this slight, precious first novel, winner of this year's Maxwell Perkins Prize. (Previous winners, like Stephen Wright's Meditation in Green, have been far more substantial.) Gehman's narrator is songwriter Carl Phillips, who starts out by telling us what this book is about (""me and my friends and the women I loved before I met the young girl I'm about to marry"") and how he wrote it: ""Just as soon as I stopped trying to do things in a particular way--just as soon as I didn't have a single idea in my head, the way I do it when I am writing a new rock 'n' roll song--why, I thought of something else to write down, and then I thought of another thing, and another, and pretty soon I was clipping along without ever having mentioned once upon a time."" Carl comes home to Middleville, Va., ""desperate and destroyed by love"" after his affair--lots of flashbacks to passion and scenery in Mexico--with artist Danielle. He makes friends with rich sculptor Mac, whose girlfriend Melissa has a St. Bernard named Bernard who wears a yellow tie. (If you think that's either adorable or profound, this may be the novel for you.) Carl hangs around with old pals Spook and Tara; he falls in love with photographer Natalia, also anthropologist Laura, but marries Jewish Lisa, who hates Middleville. He grieves over the murder of Spook by the CIA, the suicide of old flame Angelina, ""the sad-eyed exile."" He goes to a pig roast, attends an auto-body faith-healing clinic (the one briefly amusing vignette), and listens to a story (an eight-page ""footnote"") about lion-hunting from former African warrior Kuhblangsnap. And, before he drifts ""off into the sky with Sarah White in a red balloon as if he might be Oz and she the virgin Dorothy,"" Carl delivers embarrassing sermonettes about ""dreams"" and ""life"" and rainbows, plus hymns to love and music (""I was lances of sound, I was meteors bursting""). Shambling, saccharine, pretentious--with only a few specks of genuine charm and a few glimpses of real human behavior visible beneath the down-home lard and uptown posturing.