There's something a bit contrived about this first novel--it aspires to a gritty and raw naturalism but bears too many marks of writing-school cleverness. Benjamin West, a 31-year-old ex-con, heads west after being released from a six-month term for marijuana possession and sleeping with an underage girl. Having formerly worked as a therapist in a home for disabled children, West is suffering--not only for his crimes--but for his sense of failure: An upper-middle class Jewish kid, he ignored the academic track his family expected him to follow. Instead, he's now acting like some character out of a Raymond Carver story. Before he reaches San Francisco, where a job await, West wallows in his on-the-road blues: There's booze, more booze, and a one-night stand with a mildly retarded girl. In San Francisco, he begins his crappy, low-paying job as a night clerk in a residential hotel in the Tenderloin, where he quickly hooks up with Amber Keenan, a former law librarian in Los Angeles now working as a VISTA volunteer. Amber's past includes not only a violent boyfriend, but the murder of his new girlfriend in a trap meant for him. What Amber and Benjamin share is that neither ever imagined living such low, grim lives, eking out harsh existences in the sleaziest neighborhood in San Francisco. In any case, Amber's ex shows up and is killed in self-defense by Benjamin, setting off an extended effort to ditch the body and cover up their involvement, all of which is brooded over in exhausting detail, while the belabored plot is pushed on by various improbabilities- -such as unlikely reappearances of Benjamin's retarded friend. Leebron underreaches in his effort to convince the reader of all the desperation (``It was beyond angst, beyond guilt''). Despite snippets of solid writing, a debut novel that doesn't live up to its tough-guy posturings.