THE CRAZYLADIES OF PEARL STREET

By Trevanian

Crown. 367 pp. $24.95

Trevanian, an author who has chosen throughout his life to keep his identity secret, is perhaps best known for his novel "The Eiger Sanction" (made into a 1975 Clint Eastwood movie), which I came to know of while reading Arthur Roth's "Eiger: Wall of Death," a shivery account of every last person who tried to scale the Swiss mountain's north face and either lived or died in the process. One of the last to perish was a luckless stuntman making the Eastwood movie, which Trevanian later called "insipid" in several Internet interviews.

But then anything might be perceived as insipid after what Trevanian endured in his early life. His new novel has a title that evokes the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and others of that carefree ilk. But this book -- as close to autobiography as you can get and still be fiction -- is hardly whimsical. Set in Albany, N.Y., in the depths of the Depression, "The Crazyladies of Pearl Street" is American -- and serious -- in every way.

In 1936, when Jean-Luc, this tale's narrator, is 6, he finds himself stranded on the stoop of a slum apartment along with his 3-year-old sister, Anne Marie, and his hard-luck 27-year-old mom. They've been lured to this place by Jean-Luc's ne'er-do-well, con-man dad. The wretched apartment they've come to has been decorated with green crepe paper, and there's a bottle of green soda on the table. Dad has just stepped out, but of course he never returns.

Conned again! Jean-Luc's mother has already been impregnated and then deserted twice by this lounge lizard, and she's furious. But she still loves him because he was such a smooth talker, smooth dancer, sweet dresser. So here she is again, abandoned and dead broke, stuck on Pearl Street. But this is America! Full of verve, Mom dresses up in a loudhomemade pantsuit and a pillbox hat made from a cloth-covered oatmeal box and goes out looking for a hash-house job. When Jean-Luc ventures to the corner store to buy bread and peanut butter, a kindly Jewish merchant who keeps an eye on the neighborhood sends over the local ward heeler, who slips the family a couple of fivers to tide them over.

Thus their Dickensian adventure begins. Trevanian offers a picture of urban poverty exactly dated to a time and place: The radio bought from a pawnshop for a quarter a week, the not-one-but-two paper routes that Jean-Luc holds down to help support the family, the sordid apartment house that's freezing and stifling by turns, the boiler in the basement that the family alternately banks and stokes to lower the already low rent, the songs on "The Lucky Strike Hit Parade," the iron cot in the living room instead of a couch, the potato soup and bean sandwiches night after night, the mother's bouts of "lung fever" that had to be hidden from the social workers. But Trevanian is also writing about spiritual and mental poverty, our own dazzling capacity for self-destruction and our curious, tenacious pride in that destruction once we've managed to effect it.

Jean-Luc's mother is what then might have been called a spitfire. She takes pride in throwing terrible temper tantrums that scare the kids and alienate grown-ups. In her youth, she must have put some emotional investment in being "bad," which at least made her "different." She hates every ethnic group and social class, and all the unfortunate occurrences in her life have been someone else's fault. At the same time, she's ruthlessly demanding of her children, signing them up for the responsibility of bringing in the ship (as in "when our ship comes in"). Of course, if she can't do it, how on earth can she expect her kids to?

When Ben, a perfectly decent but equally damaged young man, happens by, they fall for each other. But Ben dresses tastelessly and can't dance. (Yes, she really is that shallow, that immature.) Soon enough, she has nothing but contempt for him. No good will come of this second marriage.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that Trevanian and I might have come from the same hard-luck family. There are a lot of us out there. The GI Bill changed things for our generation and let some percentage of the working poor sneak up into the middle class. It was too late for his stepdad but not too late for Trevanian. After Trevanian ran away -- becoming one of three men to "desert" that impossible mom -- he invented a rich and creative life for himself and snagged a wife he would hold on to for 40 years. He was lucky and smart -- and not entirely an exception.

This novel is literary time travel, meticulously remembered and set down, from period radio shows to making holiday "ham" out of two cans of Spam and fake maple syrup. The characters -- although exasperating and sometimes grotesque -- are regarded with the affection of someone trying to make sense of it all, trying to tease out a final meaning. This book is in some ways a key to our country; America was made by people like this.