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Mat Johnson. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, $23.95 (288pp) ISBN 978-1-58234-104-0

An African-American ad designer follows his luck from the hood to the U.K.--and back--in this uneven but quite worthwhile first novel. At 31, having finally earned his B.A., narrator Chris Jones yearns to escape West Philadelphia, his rundown hometown. When Chris wins third place in a marketing contest, his entry catches the eye of David Crombie, a brilliant designer with Jamaican roots. David invites Chris to move to Britain and work for his tiny ad agency in Brixton (a largely black part of South London). Once there, Chris designs some ads and finds a passionate Nigerian girlfriend. His main job, however, is helping David's wife pick up the pieces after David's benders. Then there's a tragic twist of fate, and Chris must return to West Philly. Bitter and dejected, he takes a temp job at the electric company, phoning poor people to help them pay their bills. He must reconcile himself with his co-workers and clients, with his homegirl Alex and with the milieu in which he grew up. Johnson's portrait of West Philly is as nuanced, elegant and witty as his portrait of Brixton is lifeless and flat, and the urban American supporting characters seem alive and genuine in a way none of the English figures begins to be. Chris's inner journey toward peace with his hood and with himself remains bittersweet without being sentimental; it's in Chris's own psyche, and in his West Philly, that Johnson shows his gifts. If the author's next novel resembles the last half of this one, he will have become a writer to celebrate. (Sept.)