Much of men's lives are spent learning the painful truth behind two of their most cherished myths. One is, "I am nothing like my father." The other is, "I can raise a son better than my father did."

In Burning Fence: A Western Memoir of Fatherhood, longtime Oregon novelist Craig Lesley looks at fatherhood from both sides now, and tells of the heartbreaking results when he tries to exorcise his own childhood demons by adopting a troubled Native American foster child. This is material Lesley covered before, though fictionally, in his last novel, Storm Riders.

In this nonfiction treatment, however, Lesley focuses more on his own upbringing, which he passes through much like Edmund Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night-a relatively normal, almost blank personality trapped in a family of spectacular grotesques. Lesley's father, a World War II veteran haunted by his combat service in the Battle of the Bulge, abandons his wife and toddler son to marry a 15-year-old waif and live off the land as a modern-day mountain man. Lesley's stepfather molests him as a boy, bullies him as an adolescent, and then develops an unwholesome attachment to a long-lost daughter by another woman. Meanwhile, his real father remains a phantomlike presence until Lesley reaches his late teens, when the father and his child bride abruptly reappear like caricatures from an Erskine Caldwell novel.

It all makes for compulsive reading, but Lesley's vivid recollection of conversations that supposedly occurred 40 or 50 years ago is sometimes almost too funny, too pat to be real. And herein lies the trouble with Burning Fence: As enjoyable for readers, and personally meaningful for Lesley, as it may be, it seems to beckon for his overdue return to fiction (Storm Riders appeared six years ago), where no nagging doubts linger about what "must have" happened and what actually did.


By Craig Lesley (St. Martin's Press, 357 pages, $24.95)

Lesley will read and sign copies at a special book launch party hosted by Broadway Books at McMenamins Kennedy School, 5736 NE 33rd Ave., 249-3983. 7 pm Tuesday, Sept. 13. Free.

He also appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Sunday, Sept. 18. Free.