In the first chapter of Amy Jo Burns' second novel, "Mercury," named for the fictional small town in western Pennsylvania where it is set, Marley and Waylon Joseph are at a Little League field, watching their son's game. The pay phone won't stop ringing, so Waylon answers it. Turns out a rotting corpse has been found in the attic of the local church.

OK so this is a mystery.

In the second chapter, as Waylon and his brothers (the "sons" of Joseph and Sons Roofing) assemble to clean up the mess, it becomes clear the book is more of a family gothic, the kind often set in Texas. There's a band of brothers, there's a "long tradition of children disappointed by their fathers." There's a long-suffering matriarch and a loose-cannon patriarch who calls his sons 'Weak Waylon', 'Big Baylor' and 'Shay Baby,' and who frequently requires rescuing from foolish exploits. There are secrets, misunderstandings and old wounds aplenty.

And then there's this: Marley calls her best friend to tell her the body's been found. "At least it's over now," says the friend. "Tell me we did the right thing," replies Marley.

Whoa. High-end literary soap opera?

Now we come to Chapter Three, set about 10 years earlier. "In June of 1990, Marley West and her mother blew into Mercury in their teal Acura with the windows down and the radio blasting ... On the far side of the road, Marley spotted three men standing atop an empty building, seventy-five feet in the air. Their silhouette cut a virile vista against the trees."

Wait. Coming of age story?

This jam-packed, intense book is all of the above, and will ultimately resolve on all three levels — the mystery will be solved, the family dynamics will be sorted (after being shot to hell and back several times) and Marley will find her footing as an adult.

What ties it altogether is Burns' passion for her characters, tunneling ever more deeply into how they understand themselves and how they define and misunderstand each other. Making sense of who people are and how they turned out that way is the real game here. As the narrative goes forward, it also roots around in the past, looking for more evidence, more insight. Sometimes these embedded flashbacks cause confusion or impatience, but that's partly because there's real momentum in the plot.

Burns' intensity imbues her writing on the sentence level: sometimes gorgeous, sometimes kind of drunk on its own phraseology. "At some point, a marriage must become a junkyard of things, unfinished sentences and earring backs scattered across the floor." Whether or not it's true, it sounds good. Actually, it sounds like Joni Mitchell.

Also — there's roofing! In an afterword, the author describes herself as the daughter, granddaughter, niece and sister of roofers, and she weaves the physical and business aspects of the trade into her story. This both grounds and elevates "Mercury," opening the narrative potential of all the things people might do when up on a roof, from attaching flashing to watching the sunset to — well, I guess you'll have to read the book.

Marion Winik is a Baltimore-based teacher and writer.


By: Amy Jo Burns.

Publisher: Celadon, 319 pages, $29.