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Mixed messages 

An unusual medical condition drives the plot of a new novel.

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Every small town has its stories, from Grovers Corners, N.H., to Monterrey, Calif., and many of those stories have similar familiar characters and settings, the Mysterious Stranger and Harry Hope's Saloon.

Dr. Sam Taggart's town is Gum Ridge, Ark., not vastly different from his hometown of Augusta. His setting is Moon's Bar and Grill, and his mysterious stranger is that shabby establishment's newly arrived cook-and-bottle-washer named Jack, or Jack Cook, or Just Jack, or, as it turns out, either of a couple of other unusual monikers.

His ongoing identity crisis is the result of an unusual medical condition that the shrinks surely call a disorder. It's a condition called synesthesia, in which the senses switch roles willy-nilly, so that a person might hear shapes and smell colors. In Jack's case, sundry foodstuffs and kitchen appliances do a lot of angry, accusatory shouting at him.

His attempts to escape the voices and the infernal disorientation caused by the sensory confusion might be a distraction, a mere gimmick, in another work, but in “We All Hear Voices” (Iuniverse, $15.95 in the trade paperback edition) it becomes as essential to the plot and the narrative trajectory as, say, Ignatius J. Reilly's pyloric valve dysfunction was to “A Confederacy of Dunces.”

The author is a longtime family doctor who lives in Hot Springs and has a practice at Benton, so the book's medical details are deftly handled – and in fact as a promotional adjunct to the novel's publication Dr. Taggert has scheduled free lectures on synesthesia at a number of Central Arkansas libraries.

“We All Hear Voices” is an old-fashioned novel in many ways, including neatly tying up at the end a lot of apparent loose ends. Not to give anything away, but it also has a happy ending, which you seldom see anymore.

In Dr. Taggart's hands it could hardly have ended otherwise because he obviously likes his characters – rooting for them as a good doctor should to cope successfully – and finds comfort in the orderliness of small-town American life as it existed during his youth and continues to exist in his memory.

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