STRAIGHT MAN by Sallie Bingham (Zoland: 256 pp., $22.95) Colby Winn's life "is designed to spare him pain," says a colleague in Louisville, Ky., where Winn teaches college English. "He's the straight man to his own fate." Winn's father, a coal-town lawyer, regularly beat his mother. Ever since, Winn has fled the violence he fears must lie within him, within all men.

In the 25 years since he last saw his father, his resume reads like this: a teaching post at Harvard, a passionless marriage, no children, a divorce, derailment from the tenure track, a dispirited return to Kentucky, tentative affairs with graduate students and the adoption of professor Isaiah Weekly and his pregnant wife, Martha, as surrogate parents. All this changes when Winn picks up a hitchhiker, Ann Lee Crabtree, an actress who "gypsies" from one regional theater to another. Hope breaks through his defenses, and so does pain.

Bingham ("Small Victories," "Matron of Honor") covers a lot of ground in this short novel. But the real trip is psychological. After detouring through Winn's past and then Crabtree's (Appalachian poverty, hard-won independence), the story arrives at a point where Winn learns, to his and others' sorrow, that he was right to distrust himself. It's a point of diminishing returns, where he can no longer tell hope and pain apart--an intersection of male yearning and brutality that Bingham maps with precision, sympathy, even humor.

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