Anorexia, drugs, child abuse, marital warfare, tales of WW II and McCarthy-age suffering, a snatch of theology, and murder--all comprise the heavy cargo that (miraculously) floats on the high-spirited, often warmly humorous narration here by 11-year-old Joan Flanagan, reluctant newcomer to a 1962 suburb on the Hudson (an adult Joan opens and closes the tale 20 years later). Joan is the offspring of self-involved and warring parents. A beset parochial-school student who carried a Lenten fast well into summer, Joan misses her Manhattan pals with whom she used to stage Tudorian executions (she played Anne Boleyn, clad in a handsome ""Gown of Woe""). But, still, there are new friends: Una McGraw (who attends an ""Academy of Metaphysics"" where they have ""Streams and Phases"" instead of grades); Una's retarded sister, Sarah Elizabeth; their father, leprechaun-like ""Squalor"" McGraw; and painter Jacob Roth. One of Squalor's theological excursions has God outranked by ""The Emperor of Eternity""--a concept that will turn up years later in the painting of Jacob Roth, a widower with a sad past who, in addition to painting Joan in her Gown of Woe, will save her life. In the time when Joan is ""dieting,"" and wounding herself with a Ceremonial Knife, she will: save Sarah Elizabeth from rape; engineer the McGraw sisters' escape from a horrid mother; hear a painter's story of death and injustice; and discover some corpses. With the exception of some walk-on adults, the children are more convincing (Squalor out-pixies Barry Fitzgerald), and withering-away Joan is robustly engaging. But despite the likable intimacy, this first novel is just not lowering enough in tone for its gothic edging.