In this graceful first novel, the funeral of one boy's grandmother excites a curiosity about death in three Japanese schoolboys: fatherless Kawabe, jiggling with nervous energy; pudgy, soft-hearted Yamashita; and the narrator, Kiyama. The boys are hardpressed by unhappy parents (Kiyama's mother drinks; Kawabe's is unmarried), exams, and cram school (""this summer will determine academic victory or defeat""). Like ""secret agents,"" they begin spying on an unkempt old man, thinking he will ""probably drop dead soon."" Instead, he shapes up under their scrutiny, and they are drawn into his life, even getting him to tell of his participation in a wartime massacre. In the course of the summer, Yamashita almost drowns; Kiyama gets into the ""first big fight"" of his life; and the old man quietly passes away, leaving them ""a friend in the next world."" This is an offbeat and unsentimental coming-of-age story--a Japanese Stand By Me--about friends fascinated by death, who end up learning about life.