Rural Maine in the Forties and Fifties: a one-handed junkman who, with the interruptions of a prison term for arson and a maiming stint in the South Pacific, lives out a vision of maddening poverty and ignorance. This first novel shows John Gould off to a good start; his opening chapter is stunning: young Alcott Greenleaf, just having discovered his despised father hanging dead in the shack they share, goes down the Sheepscot River setting ice-houses afire. The writing here is taut and vivid--maybe a little too spectacular, since the book never again catches up to its bold first slash. Alcott is caught and imprisoned. Released, he marries meek Margaret and finds himself watch-dogging her trampy younger sister Evelyn. A grinding, unspeakable powerlessness smelts these people down; Gould is meticulous about pillowing them with verisimilitude--what was in the newspapers they read, what radio programs they listed to--thus playing up their isolation from the modern world. Such pains, though, also work against him. The style is perhaps too lint-free and curried', Gould could stand some loosening up. His paragraphs are hard-set, little jewels that don't stack easily toward the finale he wants: Margaret's disgusted departure, Alcott's seduction by Evelyn, and an apotheosis involving fire (the paralleling throughout is a bit eager). But Gould is unmistakably the real thing--an awful, transfixing flavor comes off his book that makes it attention-worthy all the way through.