SOUTH OF THE BIG FOUR by Don Kurtz (Chronicle Books: $19.95; 371 pp.) About midway in this accomplished first novel, after narrator Arthur Conason has quit his job as hired man to a prosperous, indefatigable Indiana farmer, he discovers "a whole other world out there that a person could notice, when he wasn't trying to bend it to his will." Arthur has forsaken his boss, Gerry Maars, because Maars is expanding his minor agricultural empire at the expense of other farmers, and because Arthur has begun to fall in love with Annie, a married waitress with three kids. As a long-time, unionized river boatman, and a loner not much at home in his own home town, Arthur doesn't seem cut out for farm life, but "South of the Big Four" shows in mesmerizing detail how the rhythms of land-work can get into the blood until nothing else matters. Arthur at first resents Maars--for his ambition, his glad-handing, his suspicious goodwill--but soon admires him, caught up in the attempt to make farming a profitable endeavor, no matter how exhausting. The novel has little plot to speak of, and reads as slow as molasses, but Don Kurtz's language is so lyrical and honest, and his themes of work and determination so strong, he actually turns those traits to advantage, by propelling his vivid characters center stage.

Arthur, interestingly, isn't a very appealing narrator, being almost deliberately unreflecting, but even he manages to figure out a few things by the book's close. "As it was," he tells us while harrowing his father's old land, now farmed by Maars, "some come late to their calling, and mine in this vast unwatched workplace had turned out to be the simplest of all: to go steadily forward without weakening, back and forth across an empty winter field."

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