FLYING SHOES. By Lisa Howorth. Bloomsbury. 336 pages. $26.
There are many good reasons to read and enjoy "Flying Shoes."
For one, it is the debut novel of Lisa Howorth, a much revered stalwart of the literary South. She is the founder, with her husband, Richard, of Square Books, a venerable independent bookstore that took a perch on the town square in Oxford, Miss., in 1979.
After all these years of promoting and befriending a broad cast of authors both famous and fledgling, Howorth now offers a book of her own. There is a measure of celebration in her arrival as a novelist.
And how fares the book itself?
Its central character, Mary Byrd Thornton, is a refreshing creation. She's bright and brassy, caring but nonconformist, a Southern woman with two school-age children, a dutiful husband, an eclectic circle of friends and maybe an oddball lover on the side.
Mary Byrd, as she's most often called, has a lot on her mind. Flowers, plants and shrubs. Family history. Criminal investigations, old and new.
On one level, the book is a form of meditation, through fiction, of Howorth's loss of her young stepbrother in a molestation and murder many years ago. The crime occurred when Howorth was 15, and even after decades it has never been solved.
As the novel opens, Mary Byrd learns that the long-dormant probe into the killing of her 9-year-old stepbrother has been reopened and a suspect very likely will be prosecuted. Mary Byrd lives in a Mississippi university town - think Oxford - and will need to travel to Virginia to meet with the cold case detective.
This is the thread of a plot that carries the narrative, but it often is lost as Mary Byrd's attention wanders and Howorth gives center stage to various secondary characters and events. For some readers, this can be frustrating. Long digressions can put a drag on the pace of the story.
But Howorth writes with real flair. Her riff on Mary Byrd's fear of flying is hilarious. In the space of a few pages she touches on every tic in the neurotic's bag of flight phobias.
Those secondary characters and events also can be expertly drawn. One of the best is Teever, a penniless black Vietnam veteran who lives in a cemetery and is one of Mary Byrd's good buddies. When he suffers a deep, ghastly cut to his foot, he seeks out impoverished Mexicans in a rundown trailer park to provide the medical care - a chilling but wildly funny episode.
It is one of many well-crafted narrative detours - detours that tend to diminish the suspense of the child murder case that has been reopened. Over the length of the book, however, these divergent episodes form a memorable mosaic of a place, a time and a good-hearted woman at mid-life, facing crises old and new.