Wachtel (Joe the Engineer, 1983) invigorates a story of vague angst with a cast of warm characters. Primo Thomas suffers from an unnamed problem. It is not serious enough to be called a depression but could more appropriately be termed spiritual malaise. He has just moved back to New York City after two years teaching at a small Massachusetts college. He is becoming more and more detached from his poet ex-wife, who has moved to California. He is the son of an African-American father and an Italian-American mother, both of whom are now dead. While there is no clear sense of his dilemma, he himself is real and casually present. It is rare in American fiction to find someone who has a social conscience without that being that person's defining characteristic, but Primo, a teacher of English as a Second Language, has a natural empathy with his students that's neither preachy nor overtly politicized. His friends and relatives are equally complete and decent. It's the 1980s, tensions between the US and the Sandinistas are high, and Primo and a friend go to Nicaragua as part of a delegation of teachers. He is touched by the situation there and has a brief affair with the delegation's guide, Angelita LÃ³pez. The trip does not resolve anything, but it does broaden his perspective. Upon his return, he becomes aware of the bad conditions at a factory employing one of his students (who has also become his lover) and takes a stab at unionizing the shop. Wachtel smoothly integrates coincidence and recurring themes and patterns, and it is remarkable that with so indirect a plot he manages to retain the reader's interest to the degree that he does. Still, the beginning and ending seem arbitrary since so little change takes place. A meandering slice of one nice guy's life.