Jacob Manchester has got to be the most diffident young man in Harrisburg, Missouri--maybe even in the world. And he's scared of the dark. It's the summer before he's set to begin grad school in English, so Jacob is reading classics and being his normal go-along self. (""Through bad luck, a cruel twist of the mind, I had to arrange a way of life that would not slay me."") For instance, to humor his father, he takes out his old highschool girlfriend, who's since been thrice divorced. (A sexual fiasco.) And when he moves out to L.A., there's not a peep of protest from him when the other grad students propose to share a large, soon-to-be-condemned house near a freeway. Jacob thus moves in with: homely, horny Mary Ann; cult-crazy Robert; Les and Celia (married, but very ""openly,"" thanks to being the distraught parents of a defective child known as ""the Sheep Child, Mojo the Marshmallow Boy""); and, most charismatic of all, Bill, a Vietnam vet ""better than Paul Newman, Huddler than Hud."" It's Bill, of course, who gets Jacob hepped on horse races (""I fell in love with the past performances, a volume of failure that reminded me of everyone I knew and had known"")--a display of surefire losing eclipsed only by Celia's: she latches on to Jacob. . . and eventually vice versa. Koertge acrobatically keeps this crew of misfits from ever being drear; in fact, this is generally a pretty hilarious book, even up to the end, when Bill flips out and His Meekness himself, Jacob, rides along for part of the violent spree. How does Koertge manage it? Through underplaying: this first-novelist is as superb at the low-key approach as Richard B Wright was in the wonderful, equally sad-comic The Weekend Man (1971). A truly funny, very real non-hero--in a dark, smiling nightmare-jaunt that spools out beautifully.