With antic eloquence, this fine first novel explores a time of ""agitation""--of damaging parental love, sheltering sex, wraiths of shame and hope--while conjuring up the WW II-homefront world of loose ends and steam-whorled railroad terminals. California widow Selma Reynolds, once a Renoir-beautiful free spirit and extravagantly loving mother, has--ever since her husband opted to die for the Spanish Loyalists--become a drunk, progressively more noisy and unstrung. So daughters Helen and Clara have been persuaded to see Mother onto a bus, shunting her off to a job in Washington, D.C. Now, however, 19-year-old Helen--guilt-ridden--is off on a train to get Mother back. And on the first train-ride (soldiers twisted in sleep, the smell of oil, dust, sweat, gum), she meets up with Mother's ex-boyfriend John O'Connell--a cocky, 40-ish labor organizer, talking on the upswing. Fused to O'Connell by a mutual, releasing violence, Helen spends two weeks with him in a cheap Chicago hotel--after seeing her earnest suitor Will, who wants to get married. (But wars are no time for resolutions: ""we lived only now, just to be chaotic and creating energy."") Then Helen reaches Washington--and Mother, in a fleabag basement apartment: she's not working; she has a gun, a bottle under the bed; she bakes cakes and wetly rejoices at length that her ""little girl"" hasn't deserted her. Helen, staying at the Y, aches for O'Connell--following him to a Union Hall and his sister's house in West Virginia. And, while Mother drives Will off for good with a flaming sword of drunken righteousness, amid the acrid odor of burnt cake. . . Helen just lets things happen. But then events jerk forward: Helen believes she's pregnant; O'Connell (""a particular American brand of hope"") begins to make decisions; yet the war is about over. . . so it only remains for the final obliteration, the parting shot. Alive with the sights and smells of austere, icy landscapes, with a vivid sense of minds and bodies in transit: a remarkable novel, genuinely poetic in concept and execution.