The quietly repressed tension in the opening chapters here--a dead-eyed young stranger appears in the black section of St. Adrienne, Louisiana--seems to be revving up a subtly gripping and artfully shaped narrative. What Gaines (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman) actually delivers turns out to be neither subtle nor shapely, nor especially original, but on every page there's an authentic moment, or a dead-right knot of conversation, or a truer-than-true turn of phrase--enough of them to carry you through to the overly theatrical finale. That wine-drinking, street-walking, gun-toting stranger calls himself Robert X, but he is really Etienne Martin, come to town to kill the father who abandoned him 21 years ago: Rev. Phillip J. Martin, the Martin Luther King of St. Adrienne. Phillip is 60 now, a loving (second) family man and Christian, but when he recognizes yet can't remember the name of his denied son--at a civil rights soirÃ‰--he falls to the floor, swamped with guilt for the sins that no amount of good works has really made up for. Desperate for a reconciliation, Phillip betrays the movement (to get his son out of jail he promises that an upcoming demonstration will be scrapped), but his son scorns him, the movement leaders vote him out, and all he can do is try to reach his son indirectly--by learning all he can about the common-law wife and children he deserted. The father's journey-search for his son (reminiscent of everybody from Alan Paton to Toni Morrison) takes him into the back streets of Baton Rouge, where an old friend fills him in on Etienne's tortured life, where he debates with a burn-baby-burn black guerrilla, and where he receives the news that Etienne has drowned himself back in St. Adrienne. Despair and loss of faith (""How come He stood by me all those years, but not today?""), followed by growth--the ability to turn to his wife for help--and renewal: ""We just go'n to have to start again."" Since we hardly get to know Phillip before his great trauma, this novel doesn't really work as a character study; nor does it quite click as a parable of generation gaps in the post-King (the action is set in 1970) civil rights movement. But Gaines' people talk real talk and walk real streets--and these bedrock strengths of observation can survive even the most blatant or uncoordinated twirling of themes.