Sugar Cage By Connie May Fowler. G.P. Putnam's Sons; 320 pages. $19.95.

When I started reading this book, all I could think of was my favorite Southern author, Eudora Welty. I bet she's Connie May Fowler's favorite author, too, because she gives her characters names like Eudora and Junior. Too bad the character named Eudora is about the weakest woman in literary history. Something in her dies with her husband Junior and she spend the rest of the book drinking liquor out of a coffee mug, ogling men, dressing in high visibility sexy outfits, trying desperately to contact the dead, happily watching white supremacist parades and crying every other minute over the state of her life. Now, I can't think of a single Welty character who would behave that way, let alone the venerable and dignified author herself.

And Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, and Harper Lee--my other favorite Southern authors--go through my mind as well. Even William Faulkner. I pay homage to them all, one by one, as Connie May Fowler just misses capturing the Southern literary tradition: its strong women, its bizarrely wise children, and its musical and mysterious voice ("swamp sounds," Welty might say, "closer to the ear and nearer to the dreaming mind.")

Instead, Fowler gives us clichés: voodoo mambo women who cast real spells and have visions, the cheating, wife beating repentant husband, his wife, his angry son (a boy in a man's world), children who don't seem like Southern children at all, carrying on, crying and searching desperately, innocently, for love. Carson McCullers would have sent them into the kitchen to crayon their frustrations all over the walls. Flannery O'Connor would have used them to knock their parents in the head with some truth. Admittedly, Fowler does come close to this mythic child when little Luella Jewel throws her Etch-a-Sketch on the floor and begins shouting.

And these people all talk funny. They don't speak naturally. They might for a while--then they seem to stop. They either begin talking into space or behaving as if they were saying lines in a children's play: "Here I sit at my kitchen table, watching my coffee grow cold . . . ." Here is another example: "See those oaks . . . . Their roots travel deep, and their branches reach far into the sky. They're much wiser than you or me Charlie. They know more about the world than the two of us combined." It's all kind of embarrassing, listening to these people talk as if they get all their lines from TV.

And so these paper dolls of Southerners are walked through life by Connie May Fowler, trying, in their shadowy way, to become real. And, I hate to admit it but they do manage to go from cartoonland to real personland, every now and then. Sure, this novel is a paper doll show, made with those cut-out paper people you used to be able to get from Newberry's or wherever, but a very good one. In fact, it's the best paper doll show I've ever seen. The paper is cut sharply and carefully along the lines, the costumes colored with hours of care, and the plot is clever, fantastic, engrossing. I found myself reading just to be polite and ended up obsessed with whether these characters would ever discover fulfillment and happiness and whether voodoo magic could be real. I wanted to know if the interracial love, consummated just near a sugar cane field, could survive in the South. Fowler slips out of this one, but I like what she does with it--it kind of reminds me of a story I wrote in sixth grade that ends with the great vacuum cleaner coming out of the sky and sucking up all the people.

So, in the end, I guess I don't really care if Connie May Fowler isn't Eudora Welty. I read the book and despite everything, became involved (bless their little crayon hearts) with these funny-sounding, stiff-walking, wrinkled up, very sincere paper dolls anyway.