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Waiting Around the Corner

November 27, 1985|JAMES KAUFMANN | Kaufmann teaches writing at the University of Iowa

A Small Town by Shelby Hearon (Atheneum: $15.95)

Picture this: One-third of the way through Shelby Hearon's ninth novel, "A Small Town," Alma van der Linden is swept away from her high school prom to a seduction planned with surgical precision by her high school principal, Louis Le Croix.

As they head for a motel, he tells her: "This is the beginning of a new life, Alma. You'll never be sorry."

Not quite. Jump ahead 25 years and 80-odd pages. Alma is now a wife (Louis'), mother of two high school age children (Beryl and Jasper), a reporter for the Gazette and about to skip out of another prom. Waiting in a car around the corner is Dyer Tanner.

The affair is not easily conducted. "A Small Town" is set in Venice, Mo., a small town on the Mississippi, the kind of place where what goes around comes around generation after generation.

Indeed, the burden of Hearon's novel is, as Alma puts it, that "history repeats." Hearon understands that the patterns of small-town life are irreducible, and the three-section organization of "A Small Town" resembles the organization of Thornton Wilder's classic "Our Town."

In Hearon's novel, as in Wilder's play, the vagaries of the world outside are of little consequence. It may be the 1980s, but what's important is the fate of the Methodist church and finding a new doctor, talking over coffee at the cafe--things like that.

Alma is the book's strength. Her observations are sometimes funny. She can also be wise. When one of the town's children is murdered, she remarks: "A new facet of human nature, that competition, which fortunately, I hadn't run into before: whose bruise is bigger when tragedy strikes."

"A Small Town" moves between this sort of humor and quiet wisdom--it has a friendly and even tone. Hearon relies too much on scenes at the expense of structure, however. The only serious flaw is the last page, a postscript.

This apparent attempt at closure is annoying, for "A Small Town" suggests--correctly, and often beautifully--that small-town life is a continuous loop, that things always change and are always the same.

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