RATTLEBONE by Maxine Clair (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $19; 213 pp.) There's a melody to Maxine Clair's stories, rubato against the rhythm of Rattlebone, her fictional black community hard by Kansas City. Here, as elsewhere, lives are played out to the blues, to jazz, to swing, even to a waltz or two. But this isn't elsewhere. It could be a white village of the languid '50s, but it's not. Too much joie de vivre for Sleepy Hollow. Too much pulse. Even the seasons have a beat: "If winter seemed definite, desperate, then spring seemed timid, capricious, like an innocent girl feigning illness," and fall, with its trees "exploding in red, like random madness." Clair clearly, is a poet by trade, a word-weaver of early and unmistakable talent. Her Rattlebone folks are very real, the raunchy and the reserved, the public personae and the private, and they speak with an unself-conscious syncopation that pops in the ear. Sometime narrator Reenie, lovingly traced from 6 to high school, observes: Her father James, honest, industrious but a dreamer, who keeps leaving mother Pearlean--"Too early, before bird-twitter, I heard my father's brogans shuffling"--and making up: "What had once been raw chunks of conversation flung in the face had at last mellowed to decently thin slices that could easily be swallowed." When she wins a scholarship, "the day wore its widest blue sky," and so will you.