``There's a kind of peace when dealing with the dead. What's done has been done.'' During the course of this radiant, funny, and shrewd novel by the author of Saving Grace (1981), the peaceful, quasi-hermit Raphael Alter--landlord of an ancient, moldy, forlorn tenement (with tenants to match), and biographer of a dead poet- -learns that ``peace,'' of an isolate sort, can be smacked broadside by the living and wrecked by a deed of the dead. Around the hermitage apartment of Raphael, the biographer of American poet Maxwell Leibert, dead 15 years, the needs of his poverty-line, ailing tenants--ill, dying, deserted, dead-ended- -relentlessly lap. Strapped for money himself, Raphael can offer only promises, surface patch-ups--no major building (or life) overhaul. At the same time, there's the absorbing search for the essential Max Leibert--twice married, an uncomfortable father, later a drunk tending toward violence. (Included are samples of Max's strong, growling journal prose.) Raphael continues to trawl for more Max material from those-who-knew-him, but, meanwhile, there's the woman Chloe--touching, enigmatic--withholding a secret just beyond Raphael's fingertips. With the stirrings of love like a subterranean tremor--amplified by the tenement's ``hellish crazy circle of humanity,'' and suddenly shot through with the horror of Chloe's terrible secret--there will come a mammoth, shattering apotheosis--literally, a blast--ending Raphael's ``life's plan'' but also beginning a life. A canny blend of summer yea-saying sentiment and a wintry recognition of the aching sadness of little lives, embellished with wicked satiric gibes at academics and their publishers, and lively with endemic dictions--from the stagy drawl of lit'ry types to the various bleats from the lower depths. Rich and warming and a joy.