November 18, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Following his critically acclaimed debut, 1992’s Littlejohn, Owen reports again from the frontiers of Southern fiction. Set in semirural Virginia, this tale of marital infidelity and homespun religion features characters of credible absurdity (a female preacher who seduces men and smokes dope, a pharmacist driven to learn to slam-dunk a basketball) as it charts the moral meanderings of Nancy Chastain and her uncle by marriage, Lot Chastain. When the summer sunset projects the vague image of Jesus Christ on the elder Chastain’s barn, the sanctimonious Lot’s righteousness is confirmed — as is his will to act against the sin all around him. But Fat Lightning is no barn burner. Nancy’s writerly perspective (she is a novelist-in-progress) dilutes rather than fuels an otherwise potent plot. Yet Owen’s own craftsmanship ignites interest in a place at once hospitable and unwelcoming — and in people as savage as they are kind. B

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