The work of this Australian writer (Vanishing Points, 1992, etc.)--in a diction studded with some breathtaking images and conceits--continues to strengthen in depth and focus, and Astley again penetrates the shrouding canopies of loneliness to find the hope of rescue. Among those existing miserably amid ``excitability and want'' (a keystone indictment from Hunting the Wild Pineapple, 1991): a mild music teacher and his fearful/angry teenaged son; a priest and a bewildered nun; a desiccated aging single woman and a battered teenager. The four days during which Keith, 15-year-old son of piano- teacher Bernard Leverson, is unaccountably absent will seem in retrospect to have been years--of nonloving. Where is the love between father and son? To Keith, angry, bruised, and nasty, his father offers no ``rules,'' no safety; and mother Iris is having an affair with a family friend--actually a comically unlustful and boring friend. Bernard will speak and write of his worries to Fr. Doug Lingard, a Catholic priest, himself a tired victim of ``spiritual weightlessness.'' But Bernard finds everywhere ``this rolling dullness in human relationships.'' At a convent, where he gives exams in music, he witnesses the emotional aridity of a nun struggling with an empty heart, then escapes the screaming need of an achingly sad teacher. Meanwhile, on the lam, are Keith--as well as teenaged ``Chookie,'' forever unloved, a muddled Calaban, fleeing from a crime of rape. By the catastrophic close, a family is restored to love and the priest will know the brush of blessing in the act of ``restoring hope in another.'' Astley's style is occasionally choked perhaps, but also choked often with brilliants (on arriving patrons in a gloomy lounge: ``The room filled up with crustaceans--varnished hard-jawed mums and small-bit farmers all coated with the same malty staleness''). With humor and bite, then, some deep discoveries about shallow lives.