This Week's Reads

James Wood and Lisa Jewell.


By James Wood (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24) Among the seven deadly sins, sloth doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. So it's a pleasure, at first, to meet such an uncontrite, bright lazy slacker as Thomas Bunting. Lounging about in his paisley dressing gown, unshaven, unwashed, and awash in books, the perennial Ph.D. procrastinator scrounges off his London concert pianist wife, works periodically on his dissertation, but mainly scribbles in his "Book Against God," an erudite rant against the man upstairs. Bunting is, however, no religious crank or unlettered atheist. The son of a clergyman, he doesn't seek to overthrow his father's faith so much as to reconcile it with the clergyman's unexpected death. Why would God smite down such an upright man? It's a big question for an idler to answer, perhaps too big: Book is actually most enjoyable when Bunting is ignoring this spiritual conundrum. In his first novel, The New Republic book critic Wood is strongest in the collision between the everyday and the classical, as when Bunting describes a posh eatery with "Pompeian ruins of cheese on a silent trolley" or rationalizes his compulsive lying to his wife: "Jane treats every lie as if it were asparagus, which, whether I eat one spear or 10, makes my urine smell with exactly the same pungency." Book jumps back and forth between Bunting's fallen statebroke, separated from his wife, father deceasedand somewhat happier times, including a long, unproductive stay with his parents in rural northern Durham after an exasperated Jane has given him the well-deserved boot. The problem, for American readers anyway, is that Wood's very English nostalgia for unhurried countryside and leisurely tea times just doesn't provide the interest of harried London and his hero's descent into poverty and lies. As Bunting is reduced to telemarketing (too easy a symbol of decline) and finally the dole, Book's comic moments become smothered in a pious blanket of theological debate. It's like Pilgrim's Progress without the progress: the journey of a lazy, unbelieving, decidedly un-upright man to . . . nothing. No epiphany, no redemption, no reconciliation with his wife, just his father's yawning grave and the familiar lament of the son who could never fully please, understand, or love his father. Wood has access to prodigious literary tools and formidable powers of description; there should be no sniping from the authors he's brutally panned. And, to his credit, he doesn't make his hero any more likable or exceptional than he should be. Yet as first novels go, Book proves disappointing. There's a halo of high literary style around a story that's ultimately earthbound and trite. BRIAN MILLER A FRIEND OF THE FAMILY

By Lisa Jewell (Dutton, $23.95) Over the last several years, Lisa Jewell has become mistress of the Brit chick-lit domain, and with good reason; much like a peach Bellini, her work is sparkling, light, and apt to give already cranky people a splitting headache. But those able to suspend their cynicismand perhaps a few higher literary idealscan't help but enjoy the smartly wrought wish-fulfillment tomes that are Ralph's Party, Thirtynothing, One-Hit Wonder, and now, Family. As always, Jewell's plots revolve around London's young, restless, and romantically confusedin this case, three feckless brothers in various states of emotional disrepair. Overweight, overworked Tony can't seem to give his perfectly lovely girlfriend a chance. Newly successful novelist Sean is hopelessly in love with an older woman but not quite ready to grow up himself. Ned is just returned from a disastrous three-year affair Down Under. While her three main protagonists are admirably fleshed out, Jewell keeps the "friend" of the title, a mysterious boarder at the boys' parents' ramshackle South London home, largely a cipher throughout. More than anything, the opaque Gervase serves as an adviser and mirror to the brothers, a sort of psychic, motivational speaker, and sage all rolled into one skinny, tattooed, rockabilly package. Where the author excels this time out is in her mimicking of male behavior and thought patterns; it's a brave and largely successful change of tack for the genreeven if the only men who actually end up reading Friend will be the ones who steal it furtively from their girlfriends' nightstands. LEAH GREENBLATT

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