One of the considerable pleasures of Howard's fiction is that she's so remarkably able to write about innocence with the most unlikely yet unjarring urbanity, with a style in fact as sharp and glittery as broken glass. And she's never seemed more jumpy, sharded, than here in this novel: about a 46-year-old novelist, Margaret Flood, who nearly dies (of cardiomyopathy); is saved--partially with the help of her first husband, a heart surgeon she divorced and then fictionalized not very mercifully in her second novel (a wonderful scene of shriven guilt as, sick, she reads the old book over, horrified); and then wonders what her second chance at life is good for when her 16-year-old son, Bayard, is stabbed to death while interrupting a robbery at his father's (Margaret's second husband--they've separated) secondhand clothing store in the East Village. Another Howard felicity is her abandonment to the vagrancies of her characters--how they seem to go eccentric, even dissolve, right before our eyes. Husband #2 is a wonderful example: Pinkham Strong, blue-blood become social activist in the 60's and now dropout (the used-clothing store, alcoholic, a mess). Both he and Margaret are in need of caring-for--a task assumed by a Puerto Rican cleaning woman, Lourdes, who figures peripherally but all too terribly in the death of the teen-aged son as well. (After the murder, the book is somewhat reminiscent, at least in theme--parental grief--of Lynne Sharon Schwartz's Disturbances In the Field.) Yet impressive as Howard's centrifugal method is--the difficultsyntax and stylistic atomization--it also takes its toll. Shaggy, touchingly wide-flung, the book is also difficult simply to follow, to know what's going on when. The decision to include some of Margaret's manuscripts is not a boon to clarity either; and a reader may have to struggle to stay on top of just what's happening. The prose neither reassures nor pampers as it jumps from Margaret to Pinkham Strong to Lourdes to the doctor-ex-husband to the son; and it can leave you spinning-A true high-literary treat, then, for the attentive, sympathetic reader with a tight grip on the reins.