Joseph Lazaro is 27, a Vietnam vet, a meter-reader in Queens; he's married to coffee-shop waitress Rosie; since high school he's been nicknamed ""Joe the Engineer"" in honor of some long-snuffed ambition. And it's the summer of 1977 as Joe rides around Queens with older meter-reader Joe Flushing Avenue: the heat is bad, Rosie has been exhibiting befuddling signs of dissatisfaction and independence (making friends whom Joe can't stand)--and Joe, who has begun to dabble with infidelity, just wishes he could understand what holds together (if anything) this rough, plain life he lives. He has moments of perceptional vividness, in which things and places and people seem to be about to unlock their secrets. . . but then these slip away--as first-novelist Wachtel, to his considerable credit, avoids stereotype in the portrait of a proletarian life. Meter-reading, barflying, going-to-a-wake, adultery: each situation is presented as an activity with some inherent dignity; each sequence is believable; none of them is empurpled or sentimentalized. Unfortunately, however, Wachtel--apparently not trusting his readers to get the point--also overdoes the spirituality of Joe-the-Engineer's self-studies, delivering them with too-solemn explanations and elaborations of the novel's theme: ""A brick wall. If he could see how each one ends and the one next to it, or over it, or under it, begins. You can't see all the bricks in a brick wall. You can see the wall, the bricks vague and blended. But when you try to see all the bricks your focus changes, and you have to look at them one at a time."" And this thematic deliberateness is so anxiously tight that the actual story or plotting of the book is left to drift rudderlessly. Still, Wachtel has worked Hubert Selby territory here with dexterity and tact--making this an enormously promising, if only half-successful, debut.