Poet and essayist Weiss (The Poet's Notebook, 1993, not reviewed) debuts with a grim, claustrophobic morality tale that's weirdly retrograde in style and content. His obvious debt to Malamud's ghetto dramas of ethnic conflict, with their distinctly Jewish inflections, only muddies the foreground of a novel that seems to be set in the recent past. The confusion begins with Weiss's world-weary protagonist. Only well into this drab narrative do we realize that Leon Roth is not some elderly schlub stuck in a nowhere job, but a 25-year-old college dropout who works as a landlord's agent in the South Bronx. Guilt accounts for his lack of ambition--he need to be near his beloved Magda, a Polish-Catholic girl who began her descent into psychosis on the eve of her matriculation at college. Blamed by her family for Magda's increasingly bizarre behavior, Leon wastes away at his crummy job, passive and confused. The main narrative here follows a day in Leon's life as he attends to a decaying building and its many problems: the leaky faucets, the peeling walls, the urine in the elevator, and the broken mailboxes. The mostly Hispanic tenants have their own tales of woe: abusive fathers, slutty daughters, violent sons, absent husbands. And the one remaining Jewish couple are just a step away from death, not at all helped by the broken furnace. While Leon's thoughts turn to Magda again and again, he shuffles through the building trying to remedy the indignities that beset its inhabitants. With little support from his greedy boss, Allan Fein, himself a caricature, Leon loses it when he discovers Fein's plan to sell to an even worse slumlord. Fein narrates the final chapter, an account of Leon's violent outburst against him and a fatal stabbing. With none of that other Roth's sense of humor, nor the moral (and narrative) clarity of Malamud, Weiss's debut, like its protagonist, lacks purpose and passion.