The plot -- an affluent, ailing middle-aged gay man hires a pair of muscly working-class brothers barely past high school to renovate his Hudson Valley home -- could go a lot of different ways: porn, violence, stereotyped culture clash, or poignant friendship building across sociological boundaries. And in his fifth novel, Russell (The Salt Point) indulges in a bit of each. But the overarching mood of his well-observed story is one of inevitability and growing dread. Once he introduces the players -- Cameron, a rueful man facing his own mortality; Jesse, an inarticulate, straight-or-is-he? lost soul; and Kyle, a thug willing to use brother Jesse as a sexual pawn if a possible inheritance is at stake -- all Russell has to do is pull their strings. When the author stops puppeteering, though, his characters and their plights are resonant and touching.