This comedy of errors owes its charm to its endearingly sensitive and unpretentious protagonist, Charlie Shapes, the middle-aged, Jewish owner of a store for top-grade stereo equipment. Like Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler, Shapes (it's Shah-pis , he is forever telling people) is searching for some glimmer of beauty and promise in a tragicomic world. Shapes is more forgiving than Sammler, though, too amused by follies of his own and others to become brooding or cynical, even when he begins to realize that in life, no good deed goes unpunished.
As in his 1982 novel, "Only Shorter," Ross Feld spins a unique kind of dark comedy, one laced with empathy. While much of Feld's humor comes from depicting hapless lives, he is never condescending, encouraging us to laugh with, not at, his busily eccentric characters: the owners of the failing "D-Lux Motel Restaurant" (rushing to please Shapes, their only lunch customer, they pat his back, dole out huge portions of food and come up with "surprise desserts," as if, a friend of Shapes quips, "they were next going to serve up their virgin daughter"); Shapes' son-in-law Bennett, "a skinny kid who flew against the wind to love (Shapes' daughter) . . . and then, in essence, collapsed around himself, all initiative gone"; and Shapes himself, trying to seduce a local judge by timidly offering to photograph her ("I do mostly nature studies. Indoor still lifes . . . figure studies") but meeting, as always, with disappointment. "As much as he would have liked to renounce his habit of renunciation," Feld writes, "life tended to have other ideas."