A painfully beckoning memoir of a guy raising his son solo after his wife slips away into madness. Novelist Thorndike (The Potato Baron, 1989, etc.) was a young Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador when he met Clarisa in 1967. She was 19, he 24, and love came easily. Clarisa had gone to school in San Francisco and spoke flawless English. They were footloose, fancy-free, and looking for an alternative lifestyle. They married and moved to a farm in Chile, and Clarisa gave birth to their son, Janir, in 1970. At first, Thorndike admired Clarisa's impetuousness, her contrariness, and her mothering: She couldn't get enough of Janir. Then her slow, cruel slide into schizophrenia began. The closeness between mother and child was replaced by a gathering distance; she would rage at the boy, giving him a sharp pinch for good measure. They returned to El Salvador. There, Clarisa stayed out all night; she demanded a car, then smashed its windshield ``to feel the wind in her face as she drove''; she reeked of dope. Thorndike left for Ohio, with Clarisa's agreement and with Janir. What followed were hard days and nights of fathering alone. Thorndike relates with simplicity and clarity the all-consuming nature of being a single parent, the terrors of child-rearing, the loneliness as he failed to find a mate, the rhythm of the days he spent farming the land and forging a tight intimacy with his son. The love is so palpable, so sugar-free and recognizable, it makes the heart ache. Clarisa continued to materialize for increasingly chaotic and gruesome reunions, until she tendered the 10-year-old Janir a hit of LSD (``Eat this, but don't tell your dad''). She eventually committed suicide, jumping from the fire escape of a shabby hotel. Stormy and pungent, a story that makes you count family blessings, no matter how meager.