A second helping from North Carolina writer Gearino (What the Deaf-Mute Heard, 1995), whose style seems to be evolving from southern gothic to southern maudlin. Journalists have been known as tough guys at least since Julius Caesar's first stint as a war correspondent, but somehow Tad Beckman doesn't seem to fit the mold. Sardonic and knowing enough in his down-home, corn-pone style, Tad writes a column three times a week for the Barrington Chronicle, a small-town Georgia daily. Only child Tad's Yankee father was killed in WW II while Tad was still in his mother's womb, and the boy grew up trapped in the narrow space between his grandfather's redneck cruelty and his mother's manic despair. An outsider and a drifter, Tad falls into journalism after college and quickly discovers a talent for it, especially when he goes beyond the simple mechanics of reporting and becomes the advocate of some lost cause or character. ``A few times in my life, I've been able to fix something. . . . As a result, people think I have magical powers: They believe I can change things by writing about them.'' Unfortunately, even Tad himself seems to think so after a fashion, until he's brought up short by the sorts of realities he'd always believed himself well- prepared for. First, a woman who had turned to him for help is brutally murdered after he dismisses her story as small change. Then he becomes embroiled in an elaborate investigation of a shady real-estate developer whose affairs turn out to be lethal. The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere he's drawn into eventually proves Tad's undoing as a journalist. He settles down, in the end, only after he's discovered the truth of the mystery that haunts him: that of his family and himself. Gripping and taut for much of the way, but toward the close Gearino loses his focus and ends up rambling.