Like the fireworks which spangle the curtain raiser--a lavish bash at the glittering Massinis--Elliott's exposure of dry sticks and gallant flotsam in urban Australia's Thirties and Forties is both showy and oddly touching, if fast to fade. With a craftsman's steady eye, the author traces the willy-nilly careers of the partygoers as, carded by their own capricious currents, they are diverted from love or success. Carrie Massini, who sees her parents and brother buckle like corroded caryatids through murder and accident, settles for a trio of violently-to-mildly sadistic husbands to fill her inner vacuum. Her true love is orphaned actor Neil (though he's too weak to ""transform"" her), the foster child of aging former chorine and vaudeville singer Shasta, who gave up the good times for years of frying meals in a grimy bed-sit, turning away or being left by lovers, staging marathon tantrums, certain that Neil would always be ""loyal."" But Neil is flicked from Shasta's life--as he is from gentle news reporter Maggie's--by Carrie. Among the others who watch their own abasement or failure with grief and wonderment: a timid, passive girl trapped in inevitable spinsterhood; an upwardly aspiring washerwoman's son (whose speech is hilariously riddled with ""I opine"" and other brave rhetorical ornaments) who summits as a captain during the war and ends a neighborhood disgrace; a man obsessed by sexual inadequacy. Crisscrossing, they doom one another--""Touching lightly. Leaving swiftly. Crying later."" Elliott has assembled a cast of heavily improbable, mightily appealing people, and the talk is bright, mannered, funny, and often moving, as the sentiments shower in an agreeable display.