Despite its matchless surroundings, Unalakleet, a village of 800 people on Norton Sound in western Alaska, is not much to look at -- a treeless, grassless spill of tin-roofed plywood buildings; rutted, chalky roads, rusty cars and the strewn parts thereof, and uncoddled mutts. But for villagers, most of them Inupiat or Yup'ik Eskimos, it is beloved in a way that is hard to impart to outsiders.

Mattox Roesch, who lived in Minneapolis for 10 years before moving to Unk (the town's airport code and nickname), has set his first novel, "Sometimes We're Always Real Same-Same," in this remote place. In his hands, the town becomes more than a setting -- it's a kind of cosmic character.

Cesar, a 17-year-old gang member from Los Angeles, has been moved by his mother to Unalakleet, her hometown, in an attempt to keep him from ending up in prison like his older brother, a convicted killer. Cesar doesn't mind staying a while as he works to dim the memory of a rape he participated in, but he vows to be back in California in less than a year.

But Unk works some quirky magic on him, as does his cousin Go-boy, an amiable youth with grandiose visions of a peaceful world. At first, Go-boy provides high amusement, but when his eccentricity slides into mental illness, the story takes a dark turn.

What makes this book good is its subtle rendering of village life as a web of relationships that sustain individual and community in a harsh environment. Yet because the characters are so well imagined, it does so without becoming a sociological diorama.

This strength is linked to the story's weakness, which is the sluggish, meandering way in which events unfold. At times it reads like a teenager's journal, with many banal entries that fail to advance the action or develop the characters.

Generally, however, the casual narration does capture the voice of a teenager finding his way. Here, Cesar describes an essay he wrote for school:

"I wrote that if my brother had killed two kids in the village instead of in L.A., there wouldn't have been stone monuments. Just white wooden crosses. Their 15-year-old bodies hiding below fireweed. ... I wrote that the river rose and fell with the ocean. It got so low every day that the fish swam sideways. ... and when the moment arose when we wanted to reach for our guns and spray a bullet or two ... instead we could drive up North River till we ran out of gas, sit on the shore, skip some rocks, and never see another person. Time was everywhere. We could wait anything out."

Near story's end, Kiana, Cesar's bunny-booted former girlfriend, says, "Don't you know that what people want right now, and what people want in life, is always two different things?" It's a pretty clear theme, the way day-to-day life has to be balanced with and sometimes redirected by hopes and dreams.

"Same-Same" is a quirky and endearing first novel. Hope we'll see more from Roesch.

Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.