Aimed straight for the heartstrings, this novel finds moments of real pathos in one of capital punishment's more insistent dilemmas--What if it's the wrong person?--but nearly falls apart by sheer excess of hokiness. Walter Briggs, a black Bronx high school basketball star, is recruited out to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he's injured after only two games. An operation is necessary; the scholarship gets yanked; depressed and confused, he leaves for summer vacation, planning to ride back across-country on his Honda motorbike. He picks up a retarded girl along the road in Utah, chastely sleeps most of the night with her in Wasatch Canyon State Park in Utah, loses a hunting knife when he wanders around sleepless, then takes off. A gruesomely stabbed corpse of a man is found the next day--and Walter's knife. Walter didn't do it--Mayer makes that clear right away--but he's caught, tried, and sentenced to death. The book is the deathwatch, with backgrounds filled in in various voices: Briggs' mother, the sentencing judge, a young female lawyer, the retarded girl, the real killer. But Mayer (Super-folks) ties the book into so many knots of ironic unbelievable coincidence that melodrama starts to rise, topped with a last-minute pardon and an ironic capstone straight out of a Thirties Cagney big-house movie. When the book isn't huffing and puffing with earnestness, though, it's often plainly and simply affecting.