An unsparing exploration of a modest, tragic life, in a debut of considerable power. Mitcham's various talents (he is a poet as well as the chair of the psychology department at Georgia's Fort Valley State College) come into shrewd play here: The language in which Ellis Burt, at 74, looks back over his life is precise, evocative, convincing, and Mitcham's dissection of the manner in which Ellis's furies have driven him to several disastrous acts is persuasive. Ellis, a Georgia sharecropper's son, loses his innocence and any belief in his future when, at the age of 14, he witnesses several white men torturing, then killing, his best friend. Isaiah, the son of a black sharecropper, had been accused, wrongly, of robbery. Even as an old man, Ellis still remembers with painful clarity watching, in hiding, frozen, as Isaiah dies. Guilty, ashamed, he grows up a drifter, expecting little, until he courts and (to his astonishment) wins the love of Susan, who is confident, warm, supportive. For a time the sweet pleasures of marriage convince Ellis that life may have some point after all. But then, in an unthinking act of violence, he indirectly causes the death of his young son. Compounding the horror, he sets fire to his house in his grief, and the blaze quickly spreads to nearby homes. He serves time in prison and, when he is released, starts drifting again, hoping to locate some final purpose in his life. He finds it when he rediscovers Susan, now an inmate of a retirement home where he serves as a janitor. She suffers from Alzheimer's, and Ellis, with a nicely understated poignancy, quietly begins to tend her. It's a profoundly moving moment. The flow of Ellis's memories is occasionally confusing or melodramatic, but the dense reality of this unblinking exploration of a life overcomes such lapses. This slender, resonant first novel gives us a protagonist so vividly rendered that his quiet redemption feels like one's own.