James Wood, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $23 (272p) ISBN 978-0-374-11538-8

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THE BOOK AGAINST GODJames Wood. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23 (272p) ISBN 0-374-11538-9

Joining the select company of critics who write serious fiction—and do it well—New Republic book critic Wood produces a novel in the tradition of Hazlitt's Liber Amoris and Sainte-Beuve's Volupté. Like his predecessors, Wood is interested primarily in portraiture, and the portrait he draws here is of a feckless philosophy student who must come to terms with the shambles of his life. Tom Bunting begins his narrative with a survey of his miserable bed-sit in London. He is in exile from the wonderful flat in Islington he used to share with his wife, Jane Sheridan, who earned the rent from her work as a pianist. Penniless and hopelessly given to lying, Tom has also been neglecting his dissertation to scribble little impious aperçus in various notebooks. This he rather grandly calls his "Book against God"—a sort of anti-Pensées. The book—and in a sense his whole wretched life—is a muffled rebellion against his father, Peter, a charming, learned, blissfully married vicar in North England. Another source of resentment is Tom's best childhood friend, Max Thurlow, who not only is an important columnist for the Times but has been talking to Jane about Jane's connubial unhappiness. Though on the surface Tom might seem a thoroughly pathetic, despicable character, Wood succeeds against the odds in making him sympathetic and even charming. Muddling through his breakup with Jane, the drift of his ambitions and his father's death, Tom wrestles disarmingly with metaphysical and religious dilemmas that Wood gives fresh urgency and meaning. Like Iris Murdoch, Wood is the rare novelist able to dramatize the life of ideas and give it human dimension. (June)

Forecast:Needless to say, Wood's debut will be widely reviewed—few critics will be able to resist judging whether he lives up to his own standards. Sales may be surprisingly lively, too.

Reviewed on: 03/31/2003
Release date: 06/01/2003
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