Being old on New York's Upper West Side--in another tough, curious, funny-and-fierce sketchbook from the author of The Banishment (1973). ""We are not old crocks, we are just people who like to drink and to read, and who've gotten older doing so. We didn't plan it that way, as we didn't plan spinsterhood, cataracts, hardening of the arteries, and that ubiquitous kiss some misguided dimwit teaches otherwise nice kids to plant on old ladies."" So warns Ruth Reed, a 75-ish ""failed writer"" who lives as best she can near 96th Street--with roaches, with her older ""Sister"" (a retired librarian felled by strokes and senility), with ""two cats so cultured they cringe when you scrape the toast."" Ruth chats with neighbors about muggings, cremation garments, and funeral plans. She goes to the Philharmonic, does hattie with the roach-ettes (""My targets. . . quickly encircle me, Swan Lake-ing and pointy-toeing""), and corresponds with a twelve-year-old Nigerian Pen Pal. . . who believes Ruth is a teenage baseball star named Hank. (Ruth prevaricates very deftly when Pen Pal visits N.Y. to deliver a prize-winning speech.) She reminisces about childhood in Texas: the ruthless competition between cerebral Sister and her histrionic tutor when it came to reciting Walt Whitman; their grandfather's bizarre rituals for the making of home-made Worcestershire sauce. Then, on the same day that the increasingly helpless Sister will die, Ruth is terrorized (rather too theatrically) by a local young man named Pard--in a ""Save Our Libraries"" T-shirt--who has previously befriended her. (He spins out an elaborate description of the neighborhood organization behind the mugging of old people.) But, after a journey home to Texas for Sister's funeral, somehow winding up with the ashes of a murdered mobster instead of Sister's, Ruth will unhesitatingly return to the roaches, the quietly courageous friends, and even the gracious young thug who has taken the now-dead Pard's place in the mugging network: ""Am I going back to this? Of course. It's where I live."" Stone, whose fiction (aside from The Bible Salesman, 1962) has never been strong on storytelling, doesn't give this short novel much in the way of narrative shape or drive. But Ruth's monologues are studded with un-gussiedup eloquence, with whiplash plays of language, with mordantly acute asides--and, as a spokesperson for the old-but-not-sweet-or-dumb, she's often grimly irresistible.