The black is there, but the comedy comes and goes in this novel about quirky Sandspit Crossing -- a sort of dusty, down-under Winesburg, New Zealand -- by the author of Then Upon the Evil Season (not reviewed). Athol Buck's parents are among the first longtime residents to flee the town's sagging economy and seek fortune elsewhere. Athol remains with his neighbor and best mate Magdalen Maidstone, the bun-coiffed, Harley-riding spinster who runs the town library and would like to run Sandspit Crossing. The only person of culture and vision amid a sea of philistines, Miss Maidstone (as she's called) is like a benign Miss Jean Brodie; with lone protÃ‰gÃ‰ Athol, she launches grand, eccentric schemes designed to jumpstart the town. But she's working with a bunch of loopy no-hopers: Mr. Ritter, the butcher, carves sausage phalluses to mark his love for the unattainable librarian before going berserk; Mrs. Mills is strangled with her husband's pajama string while he is found bound and gagged with his underpants; Beryl's a drunk and an adulteress; Charlie's a drunk and a madman; and the radical feminists are tea-partying old hens. Maidstone panhandles, writes letters to corporations, rolls in mud to rescue landmarks, and slings cow patties at members of Parliament -- anything to keep dust and disinterest from burying her beloved hometown. Then Athol's parents, who've become Hollywood hotshots, send for him and Maidstone: Will they go? The conclusion, which answers this question, is as zany, tidy, and improbable as the ending of a Scooby Doo episode. Some of the Kiwi-speak is as difficult to read as ""shoving a pound of butter up your bottom with a knitting-needle,"" but it's the genuine, randy article. Gritty rural realities, wacky humor, and madcap antics -- an odd mix, but it works...intermittently.