Johnson's first novel after story collections (Distant Friends; A Friendly Deceit) follows two childhood friends to adulthood; here, unappealing characters engage in part because they seem so real, in part because the author's obvious concern for them rubs off. In a small eastern Texas city, Janice Rundgren and Clifford Bannon are both outsiders: She's rebellious; her home--though in the good part of town--is unhappy; his divorced, manic-depressive mother--to preserve her standing in the Catholic Church--makes Clifford pretend his father is dead. When Janice claims Clifford as soulmate, he is drawn to her but repeatedly distances himself, fearing what he sees as her voraciousness. He is also discovering art and his homosexuality (``Father Culhane had explained what to do if you encountered a bad companion, but what if you suspected...that you were one?''). During their adolescence, Clifford is appalled that Janice considers herself his girlfriend just because they regularly have sex; she confuses his rather brutal and punishing sexual behavior with passion. Meanwhile, Janice gets pregnant, and Clifford is briefly delighted by thoughts of marriage and fatherhood; after a car crash causes Janice's miscarriage, however, he flees to Atlanta leaving her behind. Years later--always feeling the ambivalent weight of their personal history and Catholic upbringing--the two manage to resume their friendship (or ``fiendship'') under the shadow of AIDS, despite the emotional mess when Clifford walks off with Janice's fiancÇ. The voices of gossiping schoolgirls reappear throughout Johnson's debut novel and set the tone: the fascinating sense of knowing intimate secrets about someone in spite of having little personal connection.