There's something of the technician about Lutes, a chilliness that obscures his sophisticated plotting and strikingly poetic prose. Perhaps he understands this, and that's why he populates his stories with alienated, slightly dazed characters. Jar Of Fools had a con man and a washed-up magician taking care of a little girl while living in a car under a bridge. Lutes' current, more ambitious serialized novel, Berlin, features a hard-bitten leftist journalist and a disillusioned art student fumbling toward romance in the waning years of the Weimar Republic, as the Nazis are seizing power in Germany. It's taken almost five years for Lutes to generate the 200 pages (and eight comic-book-length chapters) comprising Book One of the proposed three-volume work, but the first collection shows the commendable result of that effort. In addition to his romantic leads, Lutes creates a dense supporting cast of National Socialists, Social Democrats, communists, and arty decadents. The subtitle, City Of Stones, is intended as a reference to those many personalities and ideologies that held each other in check and kept the heart of German power beating in the late '20s and early '30s. As Berlin opens, that balance is tipping, largely due to the fad of "objectivity" and "perspective" among the city's intellectual elite, whose habit of coolly holding themselves above others provided a foundation for institutional prejudice. The City Of Stones installment of Berlin ends abruptly, with a riot that leaves a couple of characters critically wounded, if not dead. The cliffhanger is frustrating, since it may be another year before Lutes produces the next chapter, five years before he completes Book Two, and perhaps a decade before the entire novel is put to bed. Which means that it'll take a while to determine whether Lutes has found the elaborate subject to match his precise style, or if he'll have spent a good portion of his life on another impressively proficient but excessively aloof curio.