With lyrical precision and solid, unpredictable storytelling, McManus (Ghost Waves, 1988, etc.)--a poet and novelist who displays here the skills of both genres--creates a contemporary picaresque that establishes human finitude as the noblest obsession. Penny Culligan, for most of the narrative a 29-year-old Irish grad student in literature from Chicago, has plenty of good reasons to mull over her mortality: A diabetic, she knows her days are numbered, and she's not at all happy about it. She carries other baggage as well. When she was 22, the love of her life was half-eaten, alive, by a grizzly bear in Alaska. He survived, but in such horrifying shape that he begged Penny to do him in, which, with a syringeful of insulin, she did. Seven sexless years later, her dissertation on Beckett's Trilogy languishing, aware that she'll be lucky to live past 30, Penny sets out on a bike trip that will take her back to Alaska. What follows is essentially an extended internal monologue in which Penny considers her life's five pillars: sex, love, diabetes, Samuel Beckett, and death. Author McManus, meanwhile, himself a diabetic, brings his poet's talent for invigoratingly curt description to bear on what in reality is a numbing routine dictated by disease: check the blood sugar, gauge the dosage, shoot up. And yet each time Penny breaks out her injection equipment, the trauma is new. The two-wheel grind is broken when Penny, after a minor accident, accepts a ride from Ndele Rimes, a black guy who may or may not be a pro basketball player, and who's driving a Mercedes convertible that may or may not be stolen. The crucial lesson is that every journey into the self must be egun and finished alone, but that company along the way helps. It's a strong storyteller who can bring so elliptically to a close such an emotionally affecting tale--which is exactly what the sensitive and talented McManus manages to do.