Southern journalist Gearino, in his first novel, unrolls a tapestry of Georgia life in which the eccentricities of most of the characters and their dilemmas--during the last years of JIm Crow- -become allegories of the very history that they narrate. Sammy Ayers's adult life abruptly begins when, at age ten, he finds himself abandoned by his widowed mother in the bus station of small-town Barrington. Unable at first to comprehend the enormity of his fate, Sammy is struck dumb with fear, leading the townsfolk to conclude that he's a deaf-mute. Sammy leaves them in ignorance and doesn't utter another word for the next 30 years: ``I learned to like being deaf. . . . It was like being in a bubble that allowed everything in except emotion.'' The station manager, not knowing what to do with the boy, lets him stay overnight in a broom closet, where Sammy comes to live for the better part of his life. He grows up there as the sort of village idiot that Yankees image southern towns to be filled with and gets by doing odd jobs for the locals. Meanwhile, the secret history of Sammy's birth--we know that he's the illegitimate son of an important man--and the mystery of his mother's disappearance become central elements of the story. But Gearino takes his time working these out, just as he seems in no rush to get to the novel's climax (which is set in motion by a preacher's retaliatory bonfire attacking John Lennon's blasphemous assertion that ``the Beatles are more popular than Jesus''). Although utterly implausible, the tale succeeds in elevating the personality of the characters--rather than the action--to the center of attention, and it's in the delineation of these characters that the author succeeds absolutely. Awkward, strange, and incredible--but very moving. Gearino has a strong enough voice and a clear enough eye to make up for whatever belief needs to be suspended.