Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Kansas again, Toto, Epperson (The Moons of Summer, 1994, etc.) ladles up another middle-American passel of sociopaths, felons, and just plain weirdos. There must be something in the water: Practically everybody in Epperson's judiciously unnamed Kansas neighborhood is up to something unspeakable. Riverpark Hospital chief of staff Clyde Conlan has taken his stricken brother Thomas home to die without telling Thomas's private nurse of his fear that her patient has smallpox. Craig Peterwell, who really likes birds, goes home from his Riverpark maintenance job to a wife whose carping he's had just about enough of. Craig is watched to varying effect by Mark Vaughn, a former burglar who's still out for the odd score, and by Chance Morley, a retarded adult who's the obvious suspect in the disappearance of 12-year-old Cyndi Melo. In this tinderbox, it's only a matter of time before something gives, and the something is Louise Peterwell's legs when Craig suddenly swings at her with a two-by-four, provoking an oddly related chain of reactions both ghoulish and funny. (Funniest moments: Chance setting Craig's birds free because he thinks he hears them pleading to get out; Craig dutifully consulting a psychiatrist and deciding he needs to put his relationship with Louise on a more positive basis.) In fact, Zane Campbell, the ex-cop who turned ocularist when a bullet rearranged his own face, and his two relatively normal boys have such a ripe basket of loonies to pick from that the revelation of who snatched (and killed) Cyndi is inevitably anticlimactic--any of these folks could have done it, no problem. It would take a Carl Hiaasen to sustain the demented tone of this feverish fantasy to the end, but you have to admire the unbridled imagination that peopled Epperson's neighborhood--even if you wouldn't want to risk living next door to the author yourself.