A moving, exquisitely written account of growing up poor in the Allegheny Mountains in the 1940's and 50's. McKain (English/Univ. of Connecticut), a poet, was the only surviving child of a churchless Methodist minister and a schoolteacher/lay preacher. Here, he reconstructs his past in unrelenting and vivid detail without ever becoming sentimental or dull. In first grade, when he bought a ledger, his mother asked him, ""Do you want to become a business man?,"" and he remembers: ""I knew only that I wanted to write down things I had seen during the day so I would always have them. . ."" The memories he has saved are often as small as such objects: a childhood game in which he spent hours spinning in a back room, the time when he killed a baby chick, visits to his father's pet shop, singing spirituals on Good Friday, stealing cars and breaking into houses. McKain's prose is both gritty and lyrical, and he never shies away from the ugly: his father's ""spills,"" as he called his fits of epilepsy; the violence of his parents' marriage, which ended in divorce; a grueling job at an ice-cream factory; his father's final years in a state mental institution. But while much was tough in his lite, McKain finds virtues in ""the freedom of the gypsies"" he experienced as a child and teen-ager while his parents coped with the grim business of life and illness, he certainly learned to pay attention to the world around him. Although McKain doesn't romanticize the sadness and squalor of his father, he does show the wonder and pleasure of a small boy in a pet shop ""watching the fish cruise silently through space."" Memorable.