German poet Rothmann's first is a poet's novel--spare, elliptical, shot through with recurring images and strong descriptive passages. The narrative moves lightly and briskly, the characters have sharp outlines but no depth. Translated now (at times with excessive literalness), the book reads like an artifact of the late cold war years, a symptom rather than a real exploration of attitudes current in Germany ca. 1986. It's a time, in West Berlin, of violent demonstrations against the huge buildup of American nuclear stockpiles in Germany. The hero takes no part in the protests, although he does give shelter briefly to fugitives from police brutality. His heart's in the right place; he just can't act on his convictions. He's a halfhearted writer, a part-time cab driver, the last holdover tenant in a building being gentrified: in short, a hanger-on, a dangling man, an old familiar note from the underground. Then he falls in love with a beauty named Iris. They vacation in Tuscany. She gets pregnant. But during the crucial act of love in an Italian meadow, the hero is watching a farm family down the hill slaughter a pig. Life and death, women's menstrual blood, and men's attraction to bloodshed, all are recurring themes. But it's hard to tell when Rothmann is mocking trendy clichÇs about nurturing woman vs. murderous man, and when he's being serious. His hero drops a trail of leaden aphorisms. Sometimes they're rebutted, too often they're left to stand. In the end, Rothmann's hero can't commit himself either to fatherhood or violence, although he thinks of stabbing a brutal, arrogant American soldier. When the poet describes a Turkish street-sweeper, an Italian farmer, a Berlin sunset, he's vivid and suggestive. When he turns inward, his vision is clouded by last week's newspaper and the whole existentialist bookshelf. In all: Ann Beattie with an overlay of Middle European angst.