cover image Pearl's Progress

Pearl's Progress

James Kaplan / Author Alfred A. Knopf $18.95 (303p) ISBN 978-0

By turns hilarious and melancholy, this is the epitome of a first novel: its flaws are balanced by an appealing promise. Philip Pearl is a young Jewish poet from New York who ends up, almost by accident, teaching in the English department of a small university in the heart of Mississippi. Kaplan mines rich material from this vein, starting with Pearl's initial encounter with a motel desk clerk who says nothing is available ``poo-sod.'' (``Poo-sod?'' ``Yessir? By the poo?'') Pearl finds himself wading into the intrigues of the department and various romantic tangles, all of it drenched in the mysterious and opaque quality of the Deep South as it seems to outsiders. The book's plotting is somewhat confusedthe story builds and then collapses without sufficient explanation. But then, little that Pearl encounters can be quite explained. Kaplan's writing is crisp, authentic and brimming with originality and wit. Despite occasional lapses (the image of cars pulling out into traffic ``like a parade float'' appears twice, for instance) this novel heralds a bright new voice. (Feb.)