The backwoods of Alabama are the setting for this going-nowhere first novel about a young mussel-diver. Like his daddy and his granddaddy, Alvin Lee Fuqua used to be a commercial fisherman and wildcat whiskey-runner; then his good friend and mentor Johnny Ray steered him to the more lucrative mussel-diving (in 1979, the year of the novel, divers are making between 20 and 60 grand a year). When Alvin's not in the water, his passion is body-building; a former Mr. Alabama, his dream is to win Mr. America and make a movie with Burt Reynolds. Alvin lives alone in a small house outside Beulah Swamp--alone, that is, when his diving buddies are not hanging out there; he has a girlfriend, Ginger, who ditches him, and a big sister, Alma, a hip comedienne in a Birmingham nightclub, who is wasting away from anorexia nervosa. The big moment comes early on when Johnny Ray dies from the bends; in the vacuum left by his death and the loss of Ginger, Alvin decides to train for Mr. America again. Gobbling up steroids, he becomes increasingly self-absorbed, scarcely noticing when Johnny's hot-to-trot widow Donna and her two hell-raising kids move in. What little action there is, is squeezed into the final section, as Donna shoots a child-welfare officer and Alvin discovers Johnny's legacy (a sack of gold from the riverbed) before he too gets the bends. Confusion as thick as the characters' dialect surrounds this dismal debut. Morris' failure to shape his material is so complete that it's anybody's guess whether he intended it primarily as rambunctious comedy (pitting honest-to-God swampers against ""shit-ass"" Authority) or a naturalistic study of the hazards attendant on the quest for a perfect body.