An earnest and occasionally hair-raising record of emotional hopes and defeats in the life of an American middle-class male, from cradle to, maybe, his final reward in a happy marriage. Like Small's other characters (in Almost Famous, 1982, and The River in Winter, 1986), Earl Dimes is born in Maine and raised in central Pennsylvania by a drunken father and a lunatic mother named Nola Nichols, who sleeps away most of her son's childhood in narcoleptic collapse. She comes to at a few crucial moments in Earl's life: when his athletic, handsome, much-favored older half-brother Richie dies in a suspicious airplane crash (the plane was carrying drugs) just as Earl is leaving for Bentham College, where he has a scholarship; when Earl's father Jack dies swiftly from cancer; and later when Earl's own son, a frail, sweet 18-year-old boy named Keefer, sets himself on fire in a suicide attempt and dies gruesomely of his burns. In between, as Nola lies on a couch in a darkened room, Earl marries into a raucous, endearing Italian-American family, taking as bride a girl he's met at college; lives despairingly as an aspiring novelist-cum-high-school teacher and then busily and affluently as a management consultant; cheats on his wife; is deserted by her; and finds that he has no access to his then-12- year-old son, whom he adores and quickly loses track of as his wife moves to California. When, years later, Nola dies, she leaves Earl nothing, telling a mutual acquaintance: ``She said you never needed anything.'' Certainly this is the impression Earl works hard to give in this (you should pardon the expression) ``men's novel''--that is, until he meets and marries Marilyn and, ceding control, lives contentedly ever after. Long-winded but affecting.