Up the down mood elevator mostly with Charles, a self-styled "mess" who fantasizes and cultivates his "spiritual trouble" although he's got some genuine wretchedness to contribute to it. Mostly his mother who's depressed or screaming crazy or thinking up interesting ways of doing away with herself--heatpads in the bath or too many laxatives. But there's also Laura, whom he loves, who is theoretically married, who avoids him and goes off with a taxi driver and another woman, but comes back--to him. At one point Charles thinks of Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces and he's just that kind of young man, hanging loose or hung up. Or reflecting what we call, more pretentiously, anomie. Ann Beattie doesn't try too hard and thus succeeds in making her book casual, fresh (either way), and appealing.