BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : Going Straight to the Heart of a Family's Daily Dilemmas : SOULS RAISED FROM THE DEAD, by Doris Betts ; Knopf; $23, 339 pages

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Doris Betts asks big questions here about the relationship of faith and fate, the boundaries of family and the endurance of friendship.

"Souls Raised From the Dead," a tragic novel about a white, working-class, Southern family, is Betts' first book in more than 10 years. Primarily known for her short stories, the 62-year-old North Carolinian has published six other works of fiction.

Adolescent, horse-wild Mary Grace Thompson is the source of light and the locus of truce in a family weighed down by economic struggle and ancient feuding. Her father, Frank, is worn ragged by his job as a North Carolina State Patrolman and her absent mother, Christine, is off selling cosmetics and searching anxiously for the fountain of youth.

A sometimes somber, sometimes humorous background chorus is provided by four bickering grandparents.

Suddenly everyone's life becomes even tougher: Mary is struck with a life-threatening kidney disease.

Betts, particularly strong on evoking Southern geography and mores, locates these people in the tattered neighborhoods of the celebrated academic Research Triangle. Frank aches to move his family from the tacky apartment with its thin walls and problematic neighbors.

Class divisions are dramatic for Mary and her school friends:

"They learned it was easy to sort their own kind from other kinds--sometimes by race or grammar, by clothes, by bus riders versus car-pool riders; they got the athletes separated from the bookworms, and the criminals-in-training set aside from the boys who were wild now but would later polish their wildness into a social grace in some good fraternity; by grade eight everybody knew which pretty girls would get away with being pretty and which would be betrayed by teen-age pregnancy."

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Betts reveals the importance of Christianity in the Thompson family, the pleasures of home-cooked food at a family picnic, the village atmosphere of Chapel Hill during uncongested summers.

As Mary moves toward and past her 13th birthday, she becomes sicker and seems to be the only one clear-eyed and brave enough to acknowledge that she is dying. Others rally around in painfully optimistic attempts to solicit or simulate miracles. This well-loved child manages to gather her fractious family for a huge, multi-generational reunion.

Betts skillfully crosses generations with impressive knowledge of idioms, vocabulary and cultural tastes. She understands the psychological stresses faced by contemporary teen-agers as well as college students like Mary's riding instructor.

Poignantly she constructs Frank's middle-aged financial, sexual and career agonies. The portrayal of the half-satisfied, half-disappointed grandparents' generation is particularly moving.

But the description of Christine veers into caricature: A fashion plate with Valley Girl intonation ("OK?"!) and the perfect figure, Christine deserts her daughter for a parodied career as glamour mentor and radio host of "Tina's Arena." She goes through a succession of airhead men, exploits the family reunion to peddle make-up, skips the country as Mary gets sicker, even winds up coloring her hair blond.

Christine is the most superficial, most racist, most selfish of all these characters--the perfect 1990s projection of evil, who seems to relieve others of moral culpability by dint of her extreme villainy. Exhibit A is her reluctance to sacrifice a kidney to her daughter. The social jury is appalled by such "unnatural" reluctance, as if vital organs were family property.

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After a stunning opening, Betts somehow loses her grip on this narrative. The book diffuses into subplot after unresolved subplot. Frank's girlfriend has also suffered the loss of a child--giving up the baby for adoption rather than having an abortion as the selfish Christine would no doubt have done--but this intriguing thread is dropped.

"Souls Raised From the Dead" becomes repetitive, as Betts goes into so much cumbersome detail about kidney failure and renal treatment that you wonder if she has had firsthand heartbreak with the disease or simply can't bear to withhold bits of fascinating research.

She almost regains control in the last 50 pages, when she explores the grief of Mary's family and friends and when, in a brilliant imaginative leap, she describes a recently murdered neighbor visiting Mary in the hospital and leading the dying girl to eternity.

Betts' intelligent curiosity has taken us to the heart of daily dilemmas. "Souls Raised From the Dead" is an ambitious book and could have been a great one with a little more stylistic revision and generosity of spirit as well as a more rigorous editor.

Clearly, Betts is a very talented writer with an acute eye and a seasoned appreciation of human experience.

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