New South Humor : TENDING TO VIRGINIA by Jill McCorkle (Algonquin Books: $15.95; 312 pp.)

Levering is a farmer and writer living in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia.

On its surface, 29-year-old Jill McCorkle's third novel is as static as a hot Sunday afternoon in rural North Carolina. Set in the author's native Tar Heel state, the plot of "Tending to Virginia" moves at the pace of a sullen mule in a tobacco field. We wait for more than 300 pages to discover whether pregnant, self-pitying, 28-year-old Virginia Turner will leave her insufferable husband, law student Mark Ballard. She does not.

The book is, nonetheless, the work of a prodigious young talent. Not trendy, not clever, not ostentatious with her prose, McCorkle has a flawless ear for small-town dialogue and a ravenous appetite for the quirks and yearnings of the New South, for the favored brand names, for shopping at K Mart. Her observations crackle with witty authenticity. "They think a Pepsi Cola is next to God," one woman complains about the staff at her nursing home. Says another, recalling her poverty: "You don't know how I envied women in that check-out line; I envied the old and the young, coloreds and whites alike with their Pop Tarts and normal-size detergents and pretty decorated toilet paper. I had to buy white, only white."

Seldom, if ever, have working-class Southern women been so realistically portrayed. Taking bits and pieces from the lives of four generations in Virginia's family, McCorkle stitches a rare and intricate quilt, a pattern of women supporting women that bridges new South and old, feminism and old female remedies for heartsickness. McCorkle's needlework is not flawless--as with many young novelists, the characters dwarf the narrative; and their thoughts, as she reveals them, often impart information rather than spring organically from dramatic context. But this is a writer to watch--a talent already to behold.

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