Doug Cooney, . . S&S, $16 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-689-83127-0

Cooney recasts his stage play of the same name as a debut novel featuring a funny, offbeat premise. When Ernie Castellano is busted at school for one of his get-rich-quick schemes—hawking cheeseburgers on mystery meat day—he's grounded. The discovery of an empty lot proves irresistible to the young entrepreneur, however, and soon he's sneaking behind his father's back to start a pet funeral business. With the help of a handful of employees, including a scruffy nine-year-old artist who makes the caskets, and Swimming Pool, a professional mourner who can cry on demand, business is soon booming. But Ernie grows increasingly dictatorial and estranged from his new friends, and not until the death of his own dog does he learn there's more to value in life than cold hard cash. Cooney's background as a playwright is evident in the tight arc of the story and in the snappy dialogue. Some of the zaniness has an edge of forced hilarity, and some characters are clichéd—including the fast-talking Ernie ("Tell Mom and Dad you're going to a movie, you need the popcorn, score the ten bucks, and give little Frisky the send-off he deserves"). But the themes are credibly developed and the ending in particular has emotional resonance. This is a likable story with solid appeal. Ages 8-12. (Feb.)