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There's nothing small about these small town lives

Fannie Flagg, the queen of fried green tomatoes and small town farce, comes on like a thunder storm of sentimental humor. You can run for cover under the awning of Great Literature, you can put up an umbrella of sophisticated disdain, but it's no use: Once you're caught in this warm downpour of kitschy comedy, you quickly give in and start singing in the rain.

Her latest novel, "Standing in the Rainbow," opens with a statement "To the Public at Large" from old Mrs. Tot Whooten, the ridiculously untalented hairdresser of Elmwood Springs, Mo. "As a character in this book," she says, à la Huck Finn, "I can tell you that everything in it really did happen, so I can highly recommend it without any qualms whatsoever."

But it may be that Mrs. Whooten is no more reliable as a critic than she is as a beautician. "I like a book with a beginning, a middle, and an end," she tells us, "and hopefully a plot and a few laughs in between." By that perfectly reasonable standard, there are some bad hair days in "Standing in the Rainbow."

Not that you could ask for a better beginning – or more laughs. Indeed, the first 200 pages of this overlong novel are wonderful, a charming comedy about Bobby Smith, the archetypal 10-year-old boy. He's a mischievous little scamp with a heart of gold and a frog in his pocket.

His world – a few miles of farmland, the neighbors' yards, and a block of stores – is a universe of adventure and wonder. "Bobby even felt sorry for anyone who was not lucky enough to have been born here."

Indeed, this is the best of all possible worlds. America had just won World War II, thanks in no small part to Bobby's efforts to recycle rubber and scrap paper. There are only two problems in his life: (1) An irrepressible grin that makes teachers suspect he's always up to something and (2) parents so well known in town that somebody immediately tells on him the minute he does anything wrong.

His father, a paragon of good will and responsibility, is the town pharmacist, and his mother is affectionately known throughout the Midwest as Neighbor Dorothy. Her radio show, broadcast every morning from their living room, provides millions of housewives with a little family chat, a few recipes, organ music by Mother Smith, and a feeling of connection and trust that today's advertisers would kill for. (Even President Truman sends Dorothy's dog a birthday card.)

Her broadcasts, recounted here in high-fidelity wit, draw a constant stream of celebrity guests, from the Little Blind Songbird to the wildly dysfunctional Oatman Gospel Family. Only Flagg could carry off this parody of revivalist faith-healing Christians – complete with a ventriloquist dummy – without sounding derisive.

Off the air, we follow Bobby's antics (particularly the annual bubble-gum blowing contest), his pretty sister's hysterics over some boy (or her mother's confidential remarks about her love life to millions of listeners), and a town full of comically strange characters who wouldn't be rude to one another if their lives depended on it.

This ain't no Winesburg, Ohio. These scoops of Elmwood Springs go down like peach ice cream – almost too sweet but undeniably delicious. Flagg is one of those authors who doesn't worry about creating great significance, but then ends up doing so anyhow.

The characters in "Standing in the Rainbow" are so wholly free of self-pity and esoteric angst that if they made contact with a typical piece of New York literary fiction, they would explode in a burst of strawberry-rhubarb pie.

Death is not frequent in this little town, but it comes, and not always as expected. Sometimes a healthy child fades in the middle of the night, while a sick old lady lives many decades more. Still, if there's any sadness in this book, it's not the periodic passing of a loved one, it's the lingering sense that the values in this town have passed away and left us in a climate awash with commercialism, self-absorption, and cynicism.

Indeed, change is hard on a small town, and it's particularly hard on this novel. As the 1940s wane and we move into the '50s, the narrative veers away from Bobby and his family and picks up the story of Hamm Sparks, an ambitious tractor salesman.

Hamm is a perfectly wonderful side character, but when he steals the novel's focus and drags the plot to the Missouri State House, it's like watching Kramer try to spin off from "Seinfeld." There's just not enough there beneath the antics. Flagg knows Dorothy's kitchen down to the last doily and can of tomatoes, but her creation of the governor's office seems laughably – though not comically – fake.

Unfortunately, this detour lasts for almost 200 pages that never seem like anything more than a distraction. Her previous novel, the bestselling "Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!" maintained a much better focus. "Yet, even though other things in the world may have changed," Flagg assures us, "the 'Neighbor Dorothy' show remained the same." And indeed, it's a great relief when we finally get back to Elmwood Springs, if only to see how it all winds down.

Beneath the sentimentality, there's a real celebration of life here, an affirmation that success and happiness are the results of simple kindness, gratitude, and courage. If some long storms rumble through this novel, fans probably won't mind. There's still a rainbow arching right over it, and it's something to see.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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