Despite its flaws, among them time sequences that might be better delineated or characters who say things like "You're totally not into this," "I do strange," or, as a family condescends to enter a Dunkin' Donuts, "I'm no anti-donutist," this novel marks a heartwarming debut. "The Cradle" is a fast-paced, compassionate, moral book, whose main character's troubled past emboldens him to help others.

Patrick Somerville, a 29-year-old writer from Green Bay, Wis., who now lives in Chicago, organizes the novel around parallel plots. The first concerns Matt Bishop's search for an heirloom cradle stolen years before from a man and his daughter Marissa -- now Matt's pregnant wife. Matt's quest to find the cradle takes him from suburban Milwaukee to Sturgeon Bay in Door County, where he meets a cigarette-smoking fantast and her computer nerd son, to southern Minnesota and Indiana, then home again.

The second plot concerns a middle-aged poet and children's book author coming to terms with the death, in Vietnam, of her first love as she watches her son leave for Iraq. Each plot deals with the loss of a child. Abandoned as a boy, passed from foster home to foster home, Matt rescues another orphan during his journey. Renee Owen, the children's book author, also discovers, or rediscovers, a lost child at one of her bookstore readings, meeting him again in a touching scene in a snowy park.

Somerville sometimes creates one-dimensional characters. Matt's lachrymose father-in-law Glen, for example, represents the ineffectiveness of most characters over 50 in the novel. Other times the author stereotypes easy targets, such as Southern poor whites, or a Catholic woman at Renee's reading, who asks "whether the ideas in the books about good and evil and all that stuff come from, like, Christ?" These reservations notwithstanding, the author succeeds beautifully in describing Matt's journey, which is both a harrowing road adventure and a journey of self-discovery.

Along the way, the complex yet sympathetic Matt not only faces down a pistol-carrying amateur philosopher who does everything "with equal nihilism," but also confronts threats from a more distant past, including the foster mother who placed grass clippings in the bottom of his salad and the janitor at the home for boys who liked young lads.

As a heroic, noble Matt Bishop, sustained by Twinkies, beer and bottled water, drives his pickup truck through four Midwest states, his moral sense drives the book. Though not without distractions, this road trip is worth taking.

Anthony Bukoski's most recent short-story collections are "North of the Port" and "Twelve Below Zero: New and Expanded Edition." He lives and teaches in Superior, Wis.