Imagine yourself a tough, widowed, sixty-something Western rancher -- Atticus Cody -- with two sons who are polar opposites: Frank, a successful businessman and a state senator with a large family; and Scott, an irresponsible thirty-something drifter whose bad driving caused the death, several years earlier, of his mother. Just when Atticus is expecting a festive Christmas with Frank's family, Scott turns up from God knows where. The strain of his reappearance affects everyone in the family of Atticus, the title character of Ron Hansen's latest work of fiction (HarperCollins, 247 pages, $ 22).

Though Hansen makes little enough of the older brother Frank, it is clear that Scott's reappearance activates an old rivalry between the two brothers. Scott is by turns ashamed, envious, and embittered at his brother's success. And it is clear that Scott is full of guilt at having killed their mother in a car accident. He is also resentful of a resolute, powerful father whom he thinks he will never be able to please.

But the strain of Scott's reappearance is greatest on Atticus Cody. For Scott is really a beloved younger son whose promise was perhaps greater and who ought to have made his father proud. But the accident had a disastrous effect on the boy. He has been in and out of mental hospitals, is sick of himself and his life, is resentful of his brother, and is angry at his father for seeming to have preferred the older brother, the brother who followed the rules, obeyed his father, and did everything right. Scott's life has no center, and his father, still grieving for his dead wife and now his lost, drifting son, knows it.

After Christmas, Scott returns to Mexico. He lives in a little town called Resurreccion. He has been drawn there by Renata Isaacs, a beautiful but unstable woman Scott met some years before in a mental hospital. He loves her, but her feeling for him is on-again, off-again.

Shortly after Christmas, Atticus gets a call from Renata: Scott has killed himself.

Atticus is the story of the father's trip down into Mexico to bury his son and to collect his effects. The story is rich in moral reflection, emotional insight, and remembered experience. Much of it has to do with the father's effort to come to terms with Scott's failed promise, the teenage accident that killed his mother, the anguish of Atticus at the loss of his wife, the boy's recurrent hospitalizations. If your son had killed your wife, if your son had been in and out of asylums, if he had now made a terminal mess of things with a shotgun in Mexico, wouldn't you feel justified in feeling disgust for him? Not Atticus. Why did he kill himself? Was it guilt over his mother? Rejection by Renata? A suicidal depression brought on by the wrong neural chemistry?

The title is an index of what the book is about -- what it means to be a father and, indeed, to have a father. It is about a source of strength and unconditional love in Atticus that survives the boy's repeated failures, including the disaster of the suicide itself. It is a novel, finally, about absolution and forgiveness and the reconciliation of the oft-estranged.

But Atticus is more than just a portrait of a troubled father-son relationship. Once down in Mexico, Atticus meets and talks to Scott's friends and acquaintances. He wanders through Scott's apartment and his artist's studio out in the hills. From the photos, surviving letters, answering machine messages, and the ordinary debris of living, Atticus tries to reconstruct his son's dissolute life in Resurreccion. "We all live on the fringe here," Renata tells him. "We make up the rules as we go along." Hansen sketches in very deftly the background of this world: the drugs, the booze, the casual sex, Scott's ineffectual painting, his aimless social life with an American colony of idlers, the chance encounters with the international turistas at the hotel bars, and his Mexican friends -- Indian peasants, mostly, and one of them a shaman. The handling of the local color is expert, and the use of Spanish -- and the way it is translated into English -- is indeed accomplished.

The mosaic pieced together by Atticus of Scott's life in Mexico shows Hansen's great skill in characterization. Atticus is his fifth novel; its best-known predecessor is Mariette in Ecstasy, about a turn-of-the- century novitiate in upstate New York who displays the stigmata. The delicate handling of detail, the stray reference, the odd fact casually dropped in -- all these show Hansen's ready command of his novelistic materials. And they point to one inescapable fact for Atticus: Scott was not a suicide but the victim of a murder.

As it grows upon Atticus that his son was the victim of foul play, he becomes something of a detective, and the story merges into a suspense novel in which the central question becomes who murdered Scott and why. Atticus is a close observer, has a good memory, and his powers of induction are those of a great detective. He is also a solidly moral man who tells Renata, "Seems to me every one of you here oughtta try living according to Bible values and see how that works out." Questioning everyone who knew Scott -- Renata, Stuart Chandler (a rival for Renata's affection), the Mexican housekeeper Maria, and the police -- Atticus gradually reconstructs what happened to his son.

In the unfolding of the plot, Hansen creates mirrored images of character and action, resonant objects that rise to the level of illuminating symbolism, and there emerges a type of fatherly love for the prodigal son that has its source in a very deep parable of the human condition. Atticus is a novel by a writer who has read widely, thought seriously about what is important in human experience, and who has enriched his novel out of a deep fund of wisdom.

James W. Tuttleton teaches American literature at New York University.

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