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By any reasonable measure, Sheldon "Shelley" Cooper, the complicated protagonist/narrator of "Wyoming," J.P. Gritton's gritty, brilliant first novel, is a king-hell loser. It's 1987, and the young Colorado construction worker has been laid off after stealing equipment from his employer. His wife, toting their baby son, has left him for a neighbor who's worlds kinder and more responsible than Shelley.

And his relationship with the rest of his family is terrible, largely because he's so resentful of his older brother, Clay. He tells us that Clay's wife is "white trash" and a "whore" and cautions Clay's preteen daughter that she should lay off junk food or she'll get fat like her dad.

Shelley's the kind of guy who people are briefly happy to see for his minor, mysterious charisma — until he shuts down a room with his nasty, clever comments. "I don't know what to tell you," he says. "I have what you'd call a mean streak."

Should we like this guy? Absolutely not, but it's hard to look away from the train wreck that is his story, especially since it's so masterfully narrated by Shelley himself, in crude, spot-on vernacular. "I'll tell you what happened and you can go ahead and decide," Shelley says as he opens his story.

"Wyoming" reads more like a memoir than a work of fiction, entirely absent of pretense, sentiment and fakery. It's rich in shocking moments, but somehow we can always look back and say that we should have seen that coming.

Like all of the best stories, this one consists of a journey, one set in the America of poor, rural white people who work hard, read billboards and the Bible, and fiercely create their own American dramas and narratives.

Desperate for money and bereft of other prospects, Shelley agrees to deliver a shipment of drugs to Texas for brother Clay, who continues to deal after having spent five years in prison for just that.

Clay is a complicated character — he deals drugs, carries a gun, and for the first half of the book appears to be its villain. The novel's brilliance comes in the subtle switch of roles about halfway through — Clay emerges as a flawed but good man who fiercely loves his dying wife and two daughters, and uses his drug money to help them.

Meanwhile, Shelley encounters adventures and crises on his drug run to and from Texas that would seem familiar to Odysseus, as well as a host of petty interstate criminals. As he ferries the drug money back to his brother, he is robbed by a junkie prostitute, hounded by a motel keeper who looks eerily like his best friend, tortured by his own addictions and furies, and ever obsessed with his hatred for Clay.

Each time that hatred emerges, there is a flashback to earlier years, when he and Clay were younger and their beloved, needy mother was in their care. The flashbacks are powerful, part of the novel's expert pacing.

"Wyoming" is three interwoven stories — one about brothers Shelley and Clay; a second about Shelley and his best friend and brother-in-law, Mike, whom he clearly loves but to whom he brings nothing but harm; and, third and most of all, about Shelley himself. He is such a flawed, myopic, narrow-minded, anger-fueled, selfish man, a liar, thief and much worse, the details of which we won't give away here. And yet, toward the book's end, he starts to confess to things, understand things about himself, through a glass darkly. "I took a deep breath, thinking how your sins don't ever leave you, thinking how they hold on tight, weigh you down."

And yet we can't help rooting for him, which is what makes "Wyoming" a truly fine and compelling story. Given its dramatic plot, colorful characters and subtle profundities, "Wyoming" has movie written all over it.

But first, read the book. It's stunningly good.

Pamela Miller is a night city editor at the Star Tribune. • 612-673-4290

By: J.P. Gritton.
Publisher: Tin House, 236 pages, $15.95.