A hard-won lesson in race relations and an appealing character study are the distinguishing features of the absorbing and entertaining latest from the author, Tristan and the Hispanics (1989), etc. Seventy-two-year-old widower Rudy Pardo, a retired fire chief, lives just ``uptown'' from Tampa's Latino community, a comfortable distance from his annoyingly helpful older sisters Lucinda (and her pathetic, unemployable son ``Little Stevie'') and ``liberal'' Connie (and her ``communist'' husband). When a black teenager tries to burgle Rudy's house, the old man perversely refuses police and family aid (``he would catch the dumb kid himself, teach him a lesson'')--and gets lucky when the thief returns, contrite, and eventually submits to his guardianship. Rudy's ensuing relationship with taciturn Munro Perkins, hesitant and suspicious as it is, makes up for the disappointments of Rudy's recent years: the losses of his beloved wife ``Shoogee'' and his twin brother Rafe (to whom he talks regularly, dead or not); the violent criminality that has swallowed up his estranged son Lenny; and the grating appearances of Little Stevie, timidly insisting that he should become his uncle's chosen new son. The plot is stretched paper-thin, and sentimentality is never far from the story's warmhearted surface. But Yglesias triumphs with his characterization of Rudy. He's grumpy, bigoted, more than a little absent-minded; his attitude toward blacks can best be described as redneck-condescending (``You could train them to do things like us. Bill Cosby and his wife did'')--and he's stubbornly, insistently alive (one imagines Rudy and Philip Roth's Mickey Sabbath hanging out on the front porch together bitching about the bygone good old days). In bringing this defiant old wreck to a recognition of what he has in common with a confused black kid, Yglesias has fashioned a novel that some may dismiss as simplistic; others, though, will discover that it both moves them and makes them think.