After a superb opening sequence that's evocative, scary, and oddly Dickensian, this talented first novel winds down rather disappointingly--into an ambling, sometimes overwritten Southern-boyhood adventure tale, violent but folksy. The Arkansas-small-town heroes here (a bit too Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn for comfort) are good-boy Heubert (Hub) and his buddy Hitesy--a more cynical, wild sort (from a broken home) who leads Hub one night on a peeping-tom expedition to the shack of slum-woman Etty; what the boys see, however, is Etty's half-accidental murder at the hands of would-be rapist Lute Freeman, pea-brained lug and town handyman. And as the boys flee home in terror, Luke commits another murder to cover his tracks, then disappears into hiding on an apparently deserted island nearby. But this island is, in fact, inhabited--by ""Uncle Ethel,"" an old hermit whose wife and child were killed long ago by a greedy coal company. And it just so happens that young Hub has become Uncle Ethel's friend, a sort of nature/ folklore protÃ‰geÃ‰. So, while fugitive Lute realizes he has company and plans to kill the old man, Hub and Hitesy (who's more skeptical about Uncle Ethel's charms) plan a secret camping trip to the island. Then: Lute kills Ethel's dog; Ethel, now wise to Lute's presence, injures him with a hunting trap; the boys arrive, unaware of the danger. And soon--after the boys have a harmonica/storytelling/campfire evening with Uncle E.--the duel escalates: Lute sneaks up and chases Hub with a knife; the boys (scared but brave) help Ethel (who has a shotgun plus limitless savvy) to fight back; and there's a final round of hand-to-hand combat. Happily, Herring doesn't turn this ordeal--as so many writers would--into the familiar coming-of-age-through-violence orgy. And, throughout, his dialogue is dialect-true, his descriptive passages are vivid, and most of the action is leanly effective. On the other hand, however, the sentimental treatment of Ethel and the boys becomes increasingly tiresome: the kids' cute stiff-upper-lip routines, Hub's golly/gee-whiz sweetness, the crusty/lovable old-hermit clichÃ‰s. An uneven debut, then, offering textured (sometimes self-conscious) prose, strong sense of place, and a modicum of suspense--but few of the deeper satisfactions which seem to be promised in those mesmerizing opening pages.