Youth can be almost pathological for some, and so it proved for Bill Argus. Unfortunately, the impact of his early behavior was, as so often happens, even more disastrous to others. Parts Unknown, a promising first novel, shows how, in the end, by not doing something, Bill manages in some small sense to redeem his past.

The story is remarkably coherent, considering that it plays leap-frog among roughly a dozen different voices and years. Author Kevin Brennan puts together the jigsaw puzzle of Bill's willful abandonment of his young wife and child, and his return 40 years later to pick up the pieces. The narrative thread lies in the hands of Bill's second wife, Nora, an empathetic observer with issues of her own that get reflected back to her from time to time in the course of the book.

A famous photographer (he caught "the struggle between light and dark that was always in play"), Bill is past his prime as the book opens. He's hot on the trail of a new book of photographs that reflect how time works on memories and places. Nora's first-person account of his return to the scene and victims of his betrayal is good-natured and speckled with humor it's obvious that without her Bill would have remained lost among his indefinable demons.

First novels can encounter notable hurdles, but Brennan clears his with an unsentimental view of that old universal affliction, the human condition. As a story of gentle revenge and the charity of lies, it traces an original path through the many contemporary novels that focus on dire psychological twists and violent paybacks.

Bill, too, has been betrayed. In fact, many people fail each other in this book. And, then, sometimes, they don't. That intricate human dance between pulling down and building up, resentment and forgiveness, takes place against an appealing natural background of California desert and coast that, like Ivan Doig's Montana settings, enriches but never dominates.

In an early, peyote-induced vision, Bill's father tells him, "Life's too short." So are some books. Maude McDaniel is a freelance writer in Cumberland, Maryland.

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