Those quirky Southerners with their great affection for past high school glory and old-time religion are back. Sure, we've seen it all before, but with this estimable if occasionally sketchy novel, Owen (Littlejohn, 1992) demonstrates that the Southern gothic staples can still yield satisfaction. Nancy is signing and reading from her new book when someone asks whether it is based on personal experience, and, in the type of temporal displacement indicated in the movies by a dissolve, she flashes back to 1971. At that time, her silent second husband, Sam, suddenly insists on leaving Richmond, Va., for his hometown of Monacan. While not geographically far from Richmond, Monacan is psychologically light-years distant. It's the rural South, where the aspiring novelist contends with Sam's awkward family, including his Uncle Lot, who believes that the moss and faded paint on his barn have created an image of Jesus on the cross. In short, creepy first-person segments, Lot explains that he has been dreaming of snacking on ""fat lightning,"" a flammable wood used for kindling; that he has a sawdust pile that has been burning continuously for close to six years; and that he has hooked up with an inspirational African-American preacher who wants to organize ""The Chapel of Jesus-on-the-Barn."" Meanwhile, at her tenth highschool reunion (where she observes that her peers are ""split down the middle by the '60s,"" half of them still conservative and half of them changed), Nancy meets up with her ex-husband and finds that she is still attracted to him. At the same time, she discovers that her unassuming second husband has been acting out some high-school fantasies of his own. While Lot's crazy acts can feel forced, Nancy is convincing as a smart semirenegade who challenges the Presbyterian minister's wife when she wants to drop The Catcher in the Rye from the high-school reading list. Loopy and darkly comic, if sporadically out of control.