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In a small town, a tender tale of longing

The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole, By Stephanie Doyon, Simon & Schuster, 375 pp., $24

Cedar Hole, the setting for Stephanie Doyon's new novel, is a town that seems to exist ''almost by default." It is depressed, literally and figuratively, set in a valley between more prosperous towns. In Cedar Hole, tired parents discourage their children from striving too hard, and teachers are suspicious of any student who does try to achieve.

The one boy who manages to do his best every day is Robert Cutler, the only child of two indifferent parents. He is determined to find good in his squalid hometown. Through seemingly superhuman inner resources, Robert is a model student and a determinedly tranquil boy who grows into an unflappable, successful young man.

Francis Pinkham is the same age as Robert but possesses a completely different view of life. Francis is the youngest of 10 children and the only boy. His father had wanted a boy more than anything, but by the time Francis finally arrived, the loutish Mr. Pinkham decided he no longer needed a son. He'd already played baseball and taught woodworking with his nine daughters. Francis spends most of his young life tormented by his thuggish older sisters. The leader-of-the-pack eldest daughter is cruel enough to scare a Dickens street villain into submission.

Bullied at home, Francis becomes a bully at school. This is one of many places in ''The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole" where Doyon showcases her understanding of how communities, especially school communities, are social ecosystems. Francis starts his public school career earnestly wanting to do a good job, but he is overwhelmed by the emotional wasteland at home and by the stark fact that in his small school, Robert has taken the role of good student. Francis decides that the role of bad student is open and ready for him. Yet throughout school and afterward he yearns to be a success, to show the town that he's more than just another no-count rowdy Pinkham.

The only things that actually thrive in Cedar Hole are Robert and the lawns. In the damp valley climate, grass needs cutting at least twice a week. Rain and water and mundane tasks become key story elements in surprising ways.

The annual train festival is the biggest event in town. In true Cedar Hole fashion, the festival does not have any trains; those ceased stopping in town years before Francis and Robert were born. But the festival does have the much anticipated, highly competitive ''Lawn Rodeo" -- a complex lawn-mowing contest set in a huge field.

In a very small town, your place can be set by one or two events. Robert and Francis seem to know this, and each trains rigorously for the contest. What happens to them at these very public competitions helps drive the individual courses of their lives. You follow them as they each make choices on their way to adulthood that carry resonant, believable consequences.

Doyon, who lives in Maine, has written several young-adult series. ''The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole" is her first adult novel. She bridges the gap from youth to maturity with intelligence and sensitivity. Robert could easily be a cartoonishly nice boy, but Doyon shows, with humor and heartbreak, how his motivations for his good works are much more complex than simple kindness. Francis could easily have an epiphany to turn his life around at any point, but in this surprisingly substantial story, he has to struggle long and hard to create the life he truly wants. One situation after another feels distressingly real.

In seemingly small circumstances, Robert and Francis often face large questions such as: What happens when you spend your life yearning to be something that you're not? How do you decide what is truly important to you? How do you navigate the only universe you know?

With a compassionate wisdom that approaches that of Anne Tyler, Doyon unearths troubling truths from simple lives. It takes a clear vision to effectively merge humor with heartbreak, and she possesses it.

''The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole" is a rare first novel with enough depth to make you feel a bit wistful as you approach the last page, and that's one of the most enjoyable forms of melancholy there is.

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