There's a Spencerian truth to the effect that accumulated facts lying in disorder, begin to assume some order when a hypothesis is thrown among them. Spencer was making a sociological generalization, but fiction is older than sociology, and the gambit of a disaster which brings together a variety of disparate types for dramatic confrontations is a hoary narrative ploy. In his first novel, Frank Butler opens the proceedings with the catastrophic fall of Steve Whiting into a ""bell-shaped pit,"" and then piles up the reactions of the teenage athlete's friends, family, and neighbors. The result is an ambitious, rather stolid, somewhat old-fashioned work which, for all its industry and serious observations, smacks more of some outdoor melodrama in Vista Vision than the challenging symbolic portrait of contemporary America it was no doubt intended to be. Butler's crosspatch weaves too many stock strands (failed marriage, adolescent revolt, frustrated ambition, intellectual anemia), and his characters rarely emerge with that sort of vibrant, idiosyncratic texture necessary to make what is essentially a morality play a fresh, brisk, believable experience. The atmospheric, Southern regionalism, including fine shots of cornpone dialogue, is commendable enough, and the incidental epiphanic stretches have a vivid, ironic lilt, showing how talented Butler is within more modest areas.