The jumpy, wise-cracking narrator-voice in this arresting first novel is far removed from the dust-mote quiet of the early Anne Tyler; and yet, like Tyler, Gess has reached through the shifting blither of some family relationships--violent, abrasively angry, lunatic--to touch the delicate essence of family ties. ""All the things you want,"" says sculptor David to Dana Cogan, to whom he regularly proposes, ""you may never get. All your good deeds may never pay off."" Yet Dana, who works for a small Philadelphia graphic design agency, is a ""one woman SWAT team"" for the ""turbulent and strange home"" she has recently left. Father Irv--72, jobless for years, an aficionado of Oriental philosophy and soap operas--has chosen a life of being ""eccentric and mean."" Brother Alan is a child-man of 29: he has bungled an infinite series of jobs, with an I.Q. of 140 and a penchant for foul-mouthed tantrums; he has just announced to mother Millie, who manicures exquisitely at Bonwit's, that he intends to sue her for his trust money--the $2,000 she refuses to give him because he'll throw it away on foolishness. And so Dana, while working on a design for the handyman's-special house(like that dream-family life she used to fantasize about), is forever on call to the old family home--a veritable ziggurat of mouldering artifacts and Alan's cigarette butts. She bullies growling Irv into heart therapy; she hustles over to Millie when Alan breaks things; she even cleans out the basement. (lrv and Alan move everything right back in.) Was there ever love in this house? Why won't Millie leave? Furthermore, after ""lugging around their emotional baggage,"" Dana feels ""inept"" at finding love herself: David's bisexual; new flame Gregory is thin and mysterious. Then Millie is dead--killed by a fall down the stairs. Gregory's promise glows, then fades. Dana turns to the helpless chaos of the Irv/Alan mÃ‰nage--impossible, loony, dangerous--and becomes enmeshed in the zigzag rituals of two vulnerable men, ""the smell of their lives."" But eventually closed doors swing wide to reveal a sheltering haven of sad secrets shared and a raw, prehensile love. Gess penetrates Irv's delightfully offside nuttiness and Alan's walleyed terrors in a rackety rabbit-hole descent; and the final revelations--although a bit too pat--are nevertheless convincing. A new and lively talent.