'Mercy Trees' a tough read to follow

Martin Owenby had left his home in the small town of Solace Fork, N.C., 30 years before, leaving behind his mother, brothers, sisters and his abusive father, but most of all leaving Liza, a girl who loved him too much.

He had gone to New York with dreams of becoming a famous playwright. Instead, he is scratching out a living by editing technical manuals, a job that pays just enough to provide him with endless bottles of cheap Scotch and a series of affairs with men as damaged as he is.

Then Liza calls to tell him his older brother Leon is missing, and the family needs him. She needs him too, although she is wise enough to admit this to no one, least of all Martin. Borrowing enough to pay the fare from his current lover, he abandons the project he was working on and takes a plane to Solace Fork. Yet while he has reached a dead end in Manhattan, the family he is coming back to has more than enough problems of its own.

His sister Eugenia loves God but has little use for anyone else. Sister Ivy, who has lost her son to suicide, talks to the ghosts of people who have died. His brother James, who lives in a house-trailer, is married to Bertie, a one-time beauty with a dark secret. James is afraid that their son Bobby, who has taken up with trashy blond hairdresser named Cherise, may have something to do with Leon's disappearance. And what we learn about Leon indicates that his loss is a small one.

Newton writes well, and has created a vivid picture of this bleak world and its equally bleak inhabitants, but she does two things that make her novel difficult to follow. First, she continually jumps around in time, from 1955 to the present, with various stops in between, making it hard to tell if we are dealing with an innocent 12-year-old Martin, with a Martin just discovering his sexual orientation, or a burnt-out alcoholic Martin, trying to find out if he has a place in either of his two worlds.

On top of that, she tells her story through the eyes of many of these wounded characters, so you are never quite sure if you can believe what they are telling you. Liza loves Martin despite her growing awareness of his homosexuality. Martin tries to justify his actions, even knowing they cannot give him peace or provide any lasting happiness. Bertie hides her secret. Ivy talks to her ghosts.

Things start to happen. Martin receives a package from Leon -- there is no letter of explanation -- that does nothing to explain what has happened to him. The sheriff begins putting pressure on Bobby, particularly after the boy tries to claim that Leon gave him some land and produces a suspicious deed. Then Leon's body is discovered, but there are no clues that point to a killer or even prove that his death was not an accident.

At the end, nothing much has been resolved. We find out what happened to Leon, but the person who learns the truth tells nobody. James discovers his wife's secret, but after an initial burst of anger, does nothing. Martin decides to stay in Solace Fork, but Liza has gotten over her long love for him, and gone on with her life.

At the end, Ivy starts to clean up the old family home when her ghosts begin to appear. Leon is young again, but just as mean and insensitive. Shane tells her she was not to blame for his suicide. She begins to cry, her sister Eugenia arrives, and the book ends as they sit together on the ruined porch, listening to the sounds made by ghost dogs.

Critics have praised her writing skills (novelist Jill McCorkle calls this "an extraordinary piece of work") and agreed about her ability to create memorable characters, but for me that wasn't enough. I'm sure we'll hear from her again, but I hope she'll find a more satisfying story.