By Karen Valby
Updated January 12, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

You have to wade through Gay’s soupy Southern dialect to get to the meat of his story about three generations of men in 1950s backwoods Tennessee country. And at first, you’ll fight an undertow of language — images of ”huge cathead biscuits that threatened to float out of your hand” and ”hailstones that lay gleaming like pearls decocted alchemically out of the electric night.” But Gay’s wordplay reads more easily as his plot picks up. The book’s heart belongs to the romance between Fleming Bloodworth, the youngest of his damaged brood, and Raven Lee Halfacre, ”the prettiest girl in a three-county area.” These two put to shame most cliched young lovers in contemporary literature. And ultimately, it’s Gay’s heady language that gives them their heat. B+