<B>A mother's search for answers</B>Just hours after his high school graduation, 18-year-old Earl "Early" Smallwood, the son of a prominent attorney and a doting, stay-at-home mother, is going to kill a black teenager at gunpoint. To say that is not to give anything away; acclaimed poet and novelist Judy Goldman reveals as much at the opening of her second novel, <B>Early Leaving</B>. But knowing what happens and knowing why it happens are two different things. It's the latter that preoccupies the novel's narrator Early's mother, Kathryne Smallwood, who is struggling to understand where things went wrong in this elegant exploration of the inner workings of an average, middle-class family. It will be no easy task. Kathryne vows to "hold up to the light for re-examination what I believed all those years to be true," but she may be too late. Having failed to notice the gradual withdrawal of her husband and son, Kathryne has difficulty recognizing the whole truth, and it's up to the reader to search between the lines.
Though not always acknowledged by Kathryne, signs of trouble lurk in the Smallwoods' marriage lack of physical intimacy, the resurfacing of Peter's childhood girlfriend, a clash of parenting styles. Peter thinks Kathryne coddles Early, and he responds by pulling away from both of them. Early, pressured by his father's expectations and overwhelmed by his mother's almost obsessive affection, often resists Kathryne's influence as well, so much so that eventually one wonders whether she knows her son at all. The narrator raises more questions than she can answer, and for all her efforts it's still far from clear how her tender son got involved with what appears to have been a drug deal gone bad. But by the end, she may face an even tougher question: with Early in prison and Peter off in a world of his own, what is left of her? <I>Rosalind Fournier is a writer in Birmingham, Alabama.</I>