Ella Ruth Higgins is born in 1940 to a pair of grotesque parents. Her North Carolina father is not averse to a daily jar of homebrew nor to Nazi racial theories. Her mother is ""limited,"" but she's the baker of marvelous pies and tarts. And, while Mama eats herself to death and Daddy fills the role of cheerful, drunken, vulgarian phrase-maker (""Gone like moth piss on a sixty-watt bulb""), Ella Ruth has ample opportunities to realize that: ""There were times when I was growing up that I felt older than my parents."" So her troubles can't be shared with these childish parents--and troubles Ella Ruth has indeed. She befriends a rich girl who then drops her. She's shot in the ankle (a ""joke"") by a playmate. She's raped in a barn by a gang of boys she knows. And Wilkinson (Moss on the North Side, Cale) composes an exuberant verbal fugue around Ella's innate feminism: the crescendo comes in the voices of the sick, compromised, unlovely women whom Ella tends to as a nurse's aide in the local hospital. True, this novel doesn't have too much going for it in terms of forward movement; the re-stressings of Ella Ruth's pluckiness become a bit screechy after a while. But what's undeniable is the zest here, that moving tang of the absolutely ordinary--and, despite Wilkinson's somewhat arch tone in the telling, this is an impressive small slice of serious, closely-observed fiction.