The town has a past you can glimpse beyond the blacktop and the neon detritus of ''civilization.'' Once, 20 years ago, there was a commune where the Sunshine People expected to find themselves in nature and nature in themselves. It didn't work out that way; only an old geodesic dome still stands, down by the pond on Sam Casey's place.
Life is rough and limited in this part of the world. The Git-N-Go sign shines on, and there's a Dairy Queen, a gas station, some sagging rent houses, a bar, a pizza palace, and a lot of broken dreams.
Donna Bless works checkout at the grocery store. Since her husband was gunned down by some crazy teenagers, she's been trying to hold things together for her two sons, Wesley and Nelson, boys who haven't been spoiled yet by the world they're in. It's an uphill battle: Donna has a generous heart, but she also has a problem. Despite her best intentions, she drinks way more than a little bit too much. A friend says, coaxingly, ''One little beer never did anybody any harm.'' ''`I don't know,' Donna said. But she did know. She knew all about it.''
The friend's efforts to fix Donna up with a new man end up in an attempted rape. She is rescued by Roy Dale, who is not exactly a knight in shining armor; he moves into her life, and she accepts him there because she's lonely, but the situation is no good, and she knows it.
Roy is a drifter and a liar and, it turns out, a smalltime drug dealer. There's a sizable marijuana crop growing out there at Sam's, and Roy isn't above stealing some of the stash and taking it in his pickup to Tulsa to do some business.
Other characters who come into the story include Sam's daughter Melinda and Melinda's friend Jennifer, who is a wild one, out of control, and it turns out she has plenty of reason to be. ''`You know, it's like I said,' Melinda observes, `she's the oldest friend I have and my father always told me you have your regular family and then you have the one you find along the way and that's how it is with Jennifer and me. She might not always act like I think she should, and I'll let her know it, too, but I'm still going to try to be the same kind of friend I'd want for myself.'''
Melinda is a good person in an environment that doesn't seem to care one way or the other about anything good. Wesley and Nelson are good, too, and in different ways, Sam and Donna, who have seen a lot more of life, are still trying to be good. It's a struggle, as even the pure of heart learn. Ragel, the black boy, tells a kid on a minibike who wants to beat him up, ''You know what's the matter with you. ... People treat you like trash, and so you have to go around treating other people like trash. My daddy told me about that, he told me all about what makes people like you.'' Even little Nelson has a bedtime epiphany. ''Nelson lay his head back on the pillow then and that was something he never knew. He never knew how you could grow up to understand the world less than you did before.''
The author understands the world and this particular place very well. Tharp grew up in Henryetta, Okla., and (according to a brief biography printed at the end of the book) explored the United States by thumb and pickup truck before experimenting with a variety of jobs. Now, he teaches at Oklahoma State University in Okmulgee.
Falling Dark won Milkweed Press's national fiction prize, and it deserves to. Tharp is an economical writer, uncannily sensitive to the poetry of ordinary speech, but never soft at the center. He makes the reader slow down and listen. Donna ''pictured Sam Casey again, the way she had done since seeing him on her front porch that night, standing there half-turned, like a door that was just opening in front of her.'' That kind of precise language recalls some of the miracles in the early work of Larry Woiwode, a writer of a different region.
When, finally, Tharp writes
about hope, as writers of pastoral always do, you have to believe him, because
he knows all there is to know about despair.