If you think of Tom T. Hall as the wry, folksy ""Storyteller"" of country music, you'll be surprised--and a bit unnerved--by his uneven but strangely impressive first novel: the freeform memoir/ramblings of James Friend, ten-year inmate (since about age 20) of the Middletown Mental Health Center. For the most part, James recalls himself at age 19, ""a small, thin, bearded boy roaming the streets and the riverbanks of Woodmont Coves."" Son of the town doctor, he sells Cloverleaf salve door-to-door. He lives in a trailer-camp. He hangs out with the town winos--Mitch and Clyde. And, while also communing with some pretentiously symbolic mind-projections (The Laughing Man, The Singing Girl, The Thinking Man), he keeps up with the grimly colorful goings-on in his decidedly creepy, slightly unreal hometown. There's secretary Maude Primm, for instance--who mercy-kills her beloved boss Dr. Friedman (town pharmacist), secretly steals Dr. F.'s body, freezes it, and later dismembers it. (Maude, 35, is also one of James' many bedmates here: ""We were failures as lovers, but in Woodmont Coves our options were minimal."") There's Joe Morgan, another mercy-killer, who branches out into plain old murder when tree-loving Claudia Barnes (a big gal with three husbands) gets mean about Joe's tree-cutting endeavors: he shoots her through the heart. And there's homosexual Willie Alexander, who mutilates corpses and is framed for murder by his own father. Small wonder, then, that narrator James feels the need to blur his mind with sloe gin and yellow pills--especially when chum Clyde dies, or when pill-popping mother Buffet walks out on James' doctor-father (who's into ""pistol therapy"" and cheerleaders). Likewise, James' final mental disintegration--after the disruptions of Strawberry Festival and a brief runaway trip to a motel--comes to seem thoroughly inevitable, even if Hall never quite makes it clear how crazy James is really supposed to be. Throughout, in fact, this novel is more than a little slippery--sliding around from black comedy to coming-of-age sentimentality in an episodic format. And the attempt to suggest James' fractured mind through his Laughing-Man visions just doesn't come off. Still, the matter-of-fact accumulation of all those small-town horrors is undeniably arresting--and Hall emerges here as a storyteller with a lot more on his mind than his songwriting might suggest.