First-timer Bergen offers a strong, evocative, but ultimately rather unmoving representation of a small prairie town in Canada and of the dramas that it contains. Even if Lesser, Manitoba, were in New England, few would think of Norman Rockwell after a few days with the natives. Peyton Place would be more apt, given that sex and religion seem to be the prevailing obsessions that entangle nearly everyone. As one of the locals remarks, `` `It's a curious place, Lesser. There's this above-the-surface cordiality and kindness, like life is fine and good and clean, and evil is something others suffer from.' '' But no one is really fooled. Johnny Fehr, the town's feed-and-grain man, starts the ball rolling when he repents and converts on page one. Johnny was a wild man in his day, a drinker and a brawler and a pothead, and now that he's been born again he decides to open a community center for young people who might end up with the same hard problems that drove him to the waters of baptism. Johnny's drunken wife Charlene is intrigued by his about-face and is almost sympathetic--until it becomes clear that religion can't keep Johnny from carrying on with his old flame, Loraine. When Loraine becomes pregnant with Johnny's child, it takes very little time for word to get out, and the disaster that ensues drives Johnny deeper both into Jesus and into his relationship with Loraine--to the scandal and delight of every bystander. Although far from comic, most of the situations here contain a deep irony, an irony that Bergen puts to skillful use in drawing the jagged outline of a place at once recognizable and deeply unfamiliar. Moving, credible, and subtle, but long and shapeless overall. There's enough sensitivity and restraint in the narration to keep the proceedings from turning into soap opera, but at times it's a close call.