Screenwriter and novelist Carpenter (The Dispossessed, The Class of '49, etc.) churns out another piece of California realism (an oxymoron?) that cuts between San Francisco and the Marin suburbs to emphasize the similarities between a few seemingly disparate lives-on-the-skids. At the core of this unsatisfying fiction is a clichÃ‰: Jackie Jeminovski, a 45-year-old divorced mother of two, ""tried to be the Great American Mom, at the center of a big happy nuclear family,"" but of course she failed. Though this pretty former stewardess still lives in the Marin County house that her children grew up in, she can barely afford to put food on the table. But that doesn't matter so much since both of her kids have flown the coop, and Jackie's diet is mostly liquid. Her ex, a personal injury lawyer and ""a dangerously charming person,"" lives south in L.A., while her daughter Deirdre, a telephone company employee, leads a drab life with her oafish husband in Oakland. Sexy Jackie wakes up with Rainer Ale and shots of vodka, her life ""nothing but emptiness"" and self-pity. Her 20-year-old son, Derek, as suicidal as his mom, slithers through S.F.'s Tenderloin, barely surviving on the money he steals from newspaper machines. An innocent of sorts, this budding Bukowski quickly accelerates his life in crime when he meets a genuinely larcenous fellow, an ex-con whom he accompanies on a robbery spree. When events turn nasty, leaving his buddy dead, Derek realizes he's a ""cowardly ignorant punk,"" and is scared so straight that he becomes a shoe salesman. Meanwhile, mom sloshes through each day, occasionally pouring out her tale of woe to Kitty Brown, a shapely 60-year-old waitress with a kind heart. After one particularly sordid night, Jackie descends into the worst kind of alcoholism, leaving bed only for another bottle. But just as she begins to rediscover her will to go on, her friend Kitty dies, another person disappointed by life. Though the narrative moves along well enough, it hurtles to no clear purpose. The jarring shifts in focus leave the reader off balance, staggering about like the novel's improbably down-and-out protagonists.