Why do we make lists? To remember to get Drano or to get Uncle Al a holiday present, for sure, but "A Key to Treehouse Living" suggests that lists don't just help us organize our lives. They help us make sense of them.

Elliot Reed's first novel is presented as if it were an alphabetical, autobiographical glossary, with entries that range from a paragraph to a couple of pages on topics such as "Journey Into Deep Space" and "Podunk Town." The tale of William Tyce's coming of age begins on an ominous note with "Absence," as he notes that many children grow up without mothers and that, in any case, "not all mothers want to be with their children."

There are many more ominous notes in Reed's elliptical novel. While supposedly writing about frogs or skipping stones, Tyce makes frequent references to exploited or abandoned children, lawbreaking and betrayal. Gradually, we begin to piece together the story of an unwanted, un-self-pitying child who figured out how to raise himself because nobody else wanted the job. The occasional brush with authorities aside, he has done an improbably good job of it.

Reed deliberately writes around his subjects in order to convey the idea that Tyce, who grew up in a series of inadequate homes and orphanages, is trying to get a handle on a troubled history he doesn't fully understand. It's a fascinating exercise, but it demands more of readers than most novels, since Tyce remains a shadowy figure and since the plot, what there is of it, begins to emerge only about halfway through "A Key to Treehouse Living."

(Jacket copy compares the novel to "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," but it's much closer to Rachel Cusk's "Outline" in the way it reveals its closed-off protagonist only through interactions with other people or objects.)

At times, it feels like the story Reed wants to tell is at the mercy of his innovative structure, and he seems to have waffled on whether "Treehouse Living" is the work of an adult survivor (mostly) or a child who's in the midst of it all (occasionally). What rescues the book is the subtle suspense that comes from waiting for the story fragments to coalesce, as well as the unexpected humor Reed creates by giving us a narrator who doesn't know how funny he is:

"Build a campfire outside, never in. It may be cold in the treehouse, and you may build a fire in there to stay warm, but believe me, you will regret it."

Chris Hewitt is a features writer and theater critic for the Star Tribune. 612-673-4367.

A Key to Treehouse Living
By: Elliot Reed.
Publisher: Tin House Books, 226 pages, $19.95.