Slepian (Pinocchio's Sister, 1995, etc.) turns again to the days of vaudeville for this surprising, meaty tale of an authentic mind-reading act. A last-minute substitute when his drunken father passes out at show time, Connie Leondar, 12, wows the crowd, bypassing the coded messages his costumed mother sends from the audience to make stunningly precise, accurate observations. Only Annie knows his secret; Connie really can read the thoughts and comprehend the feelings of others. She watches as he grows more haggard and desperate-looking, until at last, after visiting the particularly vile mind of a man named Rusty Shanks, Connie confesses that all the sorrow, need, pettiness, and malice is more than he can bear. Persuading him to make a break, Annie steals away with him, in search of a never-met uncle known as Crazy Joe. The plot has the pace and ambience of old-time melodrama, but Slepian goes beyond types in her casting--even Shanks has a spot of tenderness in his villainous heart, and Joe is far from crazy. Connie finds in Joe's strange and wonderful junk garden a rejoinder for his desperate pursuit of a better view of human nature, and the settled home he needs. Absorbing.